A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every month in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. This week, they take a look at the country singles chart for Feb. 4, 2011.
Chris Young, “You” (No. 2)
Genevieve: We rag on male country singers a lot in this column for being schmaltzy and by-the-numbers, so it feels a little hypocritical to admit that I like “You,” given its schmaltzy by-the-numbers-ness. But “You” is saved by its simplicity and brevity: A midtempo love song that gets in and out in under three minutes, this is the embodiment of the word “ditty,” and while it’s not going to change the course of music history, it’s pretty charming and earworm-y without being all infuriating about it. (Lookin’ at you, “Red Solo Cup.”) And being not-infuriating bodes well both for the burgeoning career of Nashville Star winner Chris Young, and for the Billboard Country chart that will surely see a lot of him in the coming months.
Steven: Before I address “You,” let me express my outrage at your casual dismissal of “Red Solo Cup,” one of the few true acts of genius on the radio in any format last year. You, GK, obviously do not have a pair of testicles, if you prefer a song about glass. Okay, back to “You”: Yeah, this song is pleasant enough. It sounds like an early ’80s yacht-rock tune mixed with a little twang and some fiddle subbing for saxophone. What I appreciate about “You” is how relaxed it is, which is a relief about being subjected to so many overly busy pop songs on the Hot 100. Other than that, “You” is a decent if forgettable love song. Sure, it’s not “infuriating,” which I guess you’re using as a synonym for “fun.” But for those of us who enjoy fun, this song is totally dullsville.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: C
The Band Perry, “All Your Life” (No. 4)
Genevieve: The Band Perry has sort of snuck up on me: Their last two singles have landed in the “B” range in This Was Pop, yet I find myself humming both “If I Die Young” and “You Lie” far more often than 90 percent of what we cover here. (Seeing as the Perry siblings are one of the few country acts to get serious, regular play on the Hot 100 chart, it would seem I’m not alone in this growing affection.) “All Your Life” is similarly unassuming—more midtempo male-female harmonies and folk-inflected instrumentation—but I can see it being a grower as well, thanks once again to Kimberly Perry’s earthy vocals and a slight left-of-center twist, in this case, a circus breakdown at the bridge. Like The Band Perry’s previous singles, it’s not an instant sensation in and of itself, but it’s further evidence that I should probably just break down and buy the group’s damn album already.
Steven: I’ll second your endorsement of The Band Perry. I sort of wish that I could review this song after listening to it for six months, because I have a feeling that it’s the last tune in this month’s column that I’ll get sick of. As you say, “All Your Life” doesn’t really bowl you over upon first listen. After playing it a few times, it sounds like a solid B song. But Perry’s unshowy vocal and the rich blend of acoustic instruments is so easy on the ears that I can’t imagine ever not liking it. Country radio could do a lot worse than playing The Band Perry a zillion times a day.
Genevieve’s grade: B|
Steven’s grade: B
Brad Paisley, “Camouflage” (No. 16)
Steven: Two things set Brad Paisley apart from the typical male country singer: his guitar playing and his sense of humor. “Camouflage” is a good showcase for both. The fourth single from Paisley’s 2011 album This Is Country Music, “Camouflage” is a straight-up barnstormer, with a cheeky lyric about an Army-colored truck that’s “invisible to a whitetail and irresistible to a redneck girl” that gives way to some excellent extended soloing in the song’s back-end. The good ol’ boy humor might be a little obvious, but Paisley’s gives the well-worn material a clever spin. (“We took pictures in the backyard before we went to the dance / And the only thing that you can see is our faces and our hands.”) Paisley’s shown that he can handle the sort of chest-beating ballads that his peers regularly trot out to make hay on the radio, but there aren’t many contemporary male singers who can cut loose as loud and proud as Paisley.
Genevieve: I like proudly cornpone, broadly clever songs as much as the next country-music fan, but this song edges over toward the “novelty” side without having the good sense to keep it simple (and short). “Camouflage” starts with a fine, funny concept for a rollicking down-home tune, but stretches the meager premise a bit too far, losing its charm at the “git-r-done” line and becoming tiresome right around the fiddle solo. I don’t hate “Camouflage,” but it’s just a little too much song for what it is; I wish Paisley would have left off about half of the bells and whistles and guitar solos and let the songwriting speak for itself.
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Justin Moore, “Bait A Hook” (No. 18)
Steven: Geez, are we trying to contradict each this month? Here’s another song I bet you’ll hate: “Bait A Hook” is like a musical redux of Sweet Home Alabama, or very a lighthearted version of Straw Dogs. Moore addresses a former girlfriend who’s moved on to a big-city wimp who “eats that sushi stuff” and, yes, can’t even “bait a hook.” The small-town boy tweaking stuffy elites is a country-music trope that goes back decades, and Moore doesn’t bother deviating much from the formula. But even if “Bait A Hook” is lacking in originality, Moore delivers the song with a good-natured wink, some snazzy guitar licks, and a jaunty, feel-good backbeat. (There’s also an epic “sounds like it suuuucks!” before the first chorus.) As for the video, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, GK, but let’s just say there’s a shocking twist ending that will shake you to your very foundation (or leave you pleasantly entertained).
Genevieve: Who are you and what have you done with my good buddy Steven Hyden? The Steven I know would be annoyed, if not outright incensed at the proud small-mindedness on display in “Bait A Hook,” no matter how good-naturedly it winks at him. Maybe you’ve just been hypnotized by the boot-scootin’ melody—which is admittedly catchy—but the only good thing about that “sounds like it suuuuucks” line is how aptly it describes this song. Then again, as a big-city gal, what do I know? (I know how to bait a hook, for one thing.) There’s a way to do country pride without being ignorant and alienating, but this song wallows in its petty xenophobia. As for that “twist” ending, it’s only gratifying in the sense that Moore gets exactly what he deserves: the brush-off.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: D
Edens Edge, “Amen” (No. 19)
Genevieve: Between the song title and the band name, I was getting my knee ready to jerk against some good ol’ fashioned country proselytizing, but thankfully “Amen” uses the word only in the affirmative, “can I get an ‘amen’” sense, which leaves me more open to the song’s other charms. As Edens Edge’s debut single, it’s pretty unchallenging fare, but its unobtrusive, unfussy instrumentation does provide a nice spotlight for lead singer Hannah Blaylock to dance on the grave of a romantic rival. Neither she nor the song is as spunky as the subject matter warrants, but her nicely phrased vocals inject some personality into an otherwise bland kiss-off.
Steven: Edens Edge seems to be aiming for the sweet spot between the pop-bluegrass of The Band Perry and the unrepentant pop-pop of Lady Antebellum, with a stronger emphasis on the latter. “Amen” is pretty okay, though I wish Edens Edge really did take it to church—my kneejerk instincts be damned—because it would make the song a lot more passionate and distinctive. As it is, Blaylock is too nice to give this song the dash of nastiness “Amen” warrants. I guess I’m missing the personality you noticed, because “Amen” seems pretty faceless to me.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C
Billy Currington, “Like My Dog” (No. 25)
Steven: “Like My Dog” is yet another example of a song on this week’s country chart that balances humor and sentiment really well, taking what could be a silly (or even untenable) concept and turning it into a totally lovable and goofy little song. Over crisp acoustic guitar, subtle steel guitar, a little barrelhouse piano, and a brisk rhythmic shuffle, Currington makes the simple and reasonable request for his woman to act exactly like his dog does. Yes, it’s a little rough around the edges, and it doesn’t always have the best manners. (No man has ever said “act like my dog” to a woman and survived.) But “Like My Dog” is still pretty cute and it has a good heart. I want to give it a good belly-rub.
Genevieve: I’m glad we finally agree on one of these “goofy” songs, Steven. (Must be the dog-lovers in us.) Unlike “Bait A Hook” and “Camouflage,” “Like My Dog” is humorous without banging us over the head with it, lyrically or sonically, and manages to be genuinely sweet to boot. It’s still corny, but the simple, laid-back arrangement and short running time complement the slight premise, rendering it cute instead of irritating, and it’s bolstered by some solid songwriting and a couple of genuinely funny lines. (“He don’t get mad at me and throw a major fit / when I say his sister is a bitch.”) It’s not quite best in show, but it’s definitely a lovable mutt.
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Tim McGraw, “Better Than I Used To Be” (No. 26)
Steven: Tim McGraw has the longest track record of any singer covered in this month’s column; he’s been a reigning country superstar since the mid-’90s, which partly explains the relative conservativism of “Better Than I Used To Be.” McGraw has made a career of knocking big, radio-made ballads out of the park, and “Better Than I Used To Be” keeps him firmly in his wheelhouse. It’s the kind of song that people are used to hearing from McGraw, and “Better Than I Used To Be” shows that he probably has a lot more songs like this in him. Which is a good thing, because he sings the hell out of “Better Than I Used To Be,” wresting every last bit of emotion out of the familiar “middle-aged guy seeking redemption” narrative. The formulaic nature of “Better Than I Used To Be” might invite cynicism among hard-hearted types, but in McGraw’s capable hands it’s a first-class tough-guy weepie.
Genevieve’s grade: More like “Same As I Always Was,” amirite? I’m having trouble working up any opinion of this song, good or bad, because it’s the same kind of country-ballad wallpaper I’ve always associated with Tim McGraw, an artist I similarly have no strong opinion on. The hard-hearted cynic in me wants to say that this sort of institutional blandness should be cause enough to dislike both McGraw and “Better Than I Used To Be,” but it’s hard to deny the solid pop craftsmanship and vocal work on display here. I won’t remember “Better Than I Used To Be” in an hour, but I also don’t dread hearing it—or any other McGraw sound-alike—over the loudspeaker in Walgreens for the next however many years.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: C
Kip Moore, “Somethin’ ’Bout A Truck” (No. 30)
Genevieve: I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from “Somethin’ ’Bout A Truck”—nothing good, based on that title—but it definitely wasn’t a song that brings to mind both the kiddie tune “There’s A Hole In The Bottom Of The Sea” and Jewel Akens’ 1965 hit “The Birds And The Bees.” We don’t see a whole lot of progressive structure in country music—or anywhere in pop music, for that matter—so the composition alone makes “Somethin’ ’Bout A Truck” stick out from its good-time-drinkin’-song brethren, as does Moore’s slightly gravely take on modern country’s standard down-home baritone. The song doesn’t go so far as to actually color outside the genre lines—the subject matter of trucks, beer, and babes sees to that—but it does use an unexpected palette, and that makes it a winner in my book.
Steven: I think I see what you mean, but what you hear as different comes across as a little flat to me. Maybe Moore’s pretty-boy posturing puts me off, or it could be the stock arena-country backing. But I feel like I spend most of “Somethin’ ’Bout A Truck” waiting for it to rev up its engines—which isn’t a bad thing if you can deliver something great after building that tension. But the chorus of “Somethin’ ’Bout A Truck” leaves me cold. If you excuse me, I’m going to play that Brad Paisley song that you’re totally wrong about again.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: C+