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. Today, they take a look at the country songs chart for June 30, 2012.
Brantley Gilbert, “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” (No. 3)
Steven: Like Eric Church and Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert is a young country star with rock leanings. (His drummer even has a mohawk!) In fact, in a different era, Gilbert might’ve been classified a MOR rock singer in the vein of Bryan Adams or Tom Cochrane. But “MOR rock guy” no longer exists as a pop-music category, so Gilbert is now considered a country singer. “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” certainly is the sort of melodic, midtempo ballad that Adams once regularly landed on the pop charts. The guitar hook is relatively crunchy for country radio, but let’s call “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” what it is: the mandatory love song that’s intended to move units. And the song totally works in that regard, though with the feeling that Gilbert’s heart lies with the rowdier, party-heartier sentiments of his previous hit, the winning “Country Must Be Country Wide.”
Genevieve: Specificity is a hallmark of much of the best country songwriting. A specific premise provides a solid foundation on which a country song can build, whether it’s a story-song or just an extended musical metaphor. Granted, sometimes that specific foundation can result in a garish monstrosity, but if nothing else, a solid point of view makes a song memorable. (Hi, “Bait A Hook,” I still haven’t forgotten about you!) With its generic, vague premise, “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” doesn’t risk being a memorable failure, but it doesn’t risk being memorably good, either. “Mandatory” is a good adjective for this song, Steven; it’s country-rock mark-hitting, and anyone who would deem something so unremarkable as a favorite song should not be trusted.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: C
Dierks Bentley, “5-1-5-0” (No. 6)
Genevieve: Dierks Bentley is one of those country singers who seems to become more likeable the dumber and rowdier he goes. I can take or leave him in maudlin mode, as on his last single, “Home,” but both you and I enjoyed his previous ode to adult irresponsibility, “Am I The Only One,” and “5-1-5-0” has a similarly thick-skulled charm. Yes, it rhymes “po-po” and “loco” with the titular numerical sequence—police code for a psychiatric hold, as Van Halen fans undoubtedly know—but it does so with a charming, lunk-headed swagger complemented by a rollicking banjo and a “Crazy Train” reference. This is party music, plain and simple, with lots of energy and an easy sing-along chorus anyone can keep up with, even after a few beers.
Steven: Yep, we are some serious suckers for dumb Dierks Bentley songs here at This Was Pop. Here’s the one thing I don’t understand, though: If he’s really going wild and crazy, why is he asking for someone to call the police? Can you think of another party song where the cops are invited to the party? Should this be taken as evidence that Dierks Bentley truly is as insane as he claims? “No, seriously guys, I want the police to break this up!” This is a little too nuts for me, GK.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B
Toby Keith, “Beers Ago” (No. 8)
Steven: People who instinctively dismiss country music still define Toby Keith by 2002’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue,” a.k.a. the “we’ll put a boot in your ass” song. But for those of us who like to peek into country radio every now and then, Keith is one of the most dependable big-tent stars in the business. He has the best sense of humor (with the possible exception of Brad Paisley) of any major male country star, and he’s a modern master of the drinking song. (You can see evidence of both in “Red Solo Cup,” one of 2011’s best singles.) Toby is a little more wistful in “Beers Ago,” using Eric Church’s songwriting trick from “Springsteen” to take stock in his life, only he’s using downed brews rather than Boss songs. Musically, “Beers Ago” is the sound of summer jamz in red-state America, an upbeat slab of Southern designed for camping trips and pontoon-boat parties.
Genevieve: Toby Keith falls way at the opposite end of the specificity spectrum from Brantley Gilbert: In “Beers Ago,” he tells us his exact variety of Skoal (wintergreen, very manly), what street he gets his gas on (Main, duh, this is America), and the exact number of beers he’s had (that would be a superhuman 1,562)—though to find out the color and brand of the receptacle said beers were consumed from, we must look elsewhere in his discography. And yes, that specificity has resulted in some turds (you’re going to put your what where, Toby??), but it’s also resulted in some fun, funny, human-sounding songs like “Beers Ago,” not to mention a freakin’ restaurant chain inspired by one of his lyrics. Take note, Brantley: Nobody’s clamoring to build the You Don’t Know Her Like I Do Bistro. Whether someone would want to spend time in Toby Keith’s world (or his restaurant, for that matter) is a matter of personal taste, but the man deserves credit for rendering that world in such detail.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over” (No. 10)
Genevieve: Kenny Chesney seems like the Chris Isaak of country, with his smooth baritone, tendency toward cheesiness, and blandly competent songwriting (but not the David Lynch association, though wouldn’t that be something?), and “Come Over” is his “Wicked Game”—though that might be a reaction to the forced sexiness of the black-and-white music video more than the song. “Come Over” isn’t as good as “Wicked Game,” but it does have a similarly easy-listening-leaning bent, especially that laxative-smooth, piano-laced intro. It’s meant as a seductive come-on, but its slickness robs “Come Over” of most of its intended sexiness, and Chesney begging his lady to “come over come over come over” comes across as more perfunctory than plaintive. Blech.
Steven: What strikes me about the video is how completely Chesney has shed the trappings of the country star. He’s riding on a yacht, sipping wine, pawing at some big-city hottie—and he isn’t even wearing a cowboy hat. This is full-on luxury soft rock for the 1 percent. Extra emphasis on the word “soft”: Not only is “Come Over” not sexy, it will probably make you feel less aroused after hearing it. I’m not a doctor, but I’d recommend against playing this song if you plan on engaging in any kind of sexual activity in the next week.
Genevieve’s grade: D+
Steven’s grade: C-
The Band Perry, “Postcard From Paris” (No. 11)
Genevieve: Another This Was Pop, another good-enough song from The Band Perry, the perpetual B-students of the country-music charts. The trio has a way with inoffensive, simile-laden midtempo songs that insinuate themselves over repeated listens, and “Postcard From Paris” falls squarely under that heading. Part of me wishes the group could be more of a shower than a grower sometimes, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of Kimberly Perry’s earthy, expressive voice, which I’m sure I’ve compared to Natalie Maines’ before, and will now do again. The Band Perry isn’t going to become anyone’s favorite band if it maintains this same cruising altitude forever, but it’s also not going to piss anyone off—and with country radio, that’s the name of the game.
Steven: As you say, this is another grower from The Band Perry. I agree this group is pretty workmanlike when plying its pop-bluegrass trade, but doesn’t “If I Die Young” still sound great however many months (nay, years) later? “Postcard From Paris” is a little more workmanlike than the group’s other singles; it’s the fifth song from the band’s self-titled record to be shipped to the radio, and it definitely sounds like the album’s fifth-best song. Still, the things we’ve come to expect from The Band Perry—solid songwriting craft and Perry’s captivating voice—deliver just fine here. Now, how long must we wait for a mash-up of “Postcard From Paris” with “Niggas In Paris”? GK, you’re good at the Internet, why don’t you get on that one?
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B
Dustin Lynch, “Cowboys and Angels” (No. 17)
Genevieve: Steven, I know you love pointing out what mewling pussies country-music dudes can be when they’re in ballad mode, so I’d like to present you with your new whipping boy, guitar-toting living Ken doll Dustin Lynch. At least give “Cowboys And Angels” this: It picks a theme and sticks to it, with lyrics like, “I’ve got boots and she’s got wings / I’m hell on wheels and she’s heavenly,” because acknowledging that a woman has flaws and loving her in spite of them has no place in pandering balladry. The one saving grace of “Cowboys And Angels” is a short guitar solo that transitions nicely into a fiddle breakdown, a neat bit of meaty instrumentation in this otherwise anemic porridge of a song.
Steven: I admit: I picked this song for us to write about based solely on the title, which sounds like the sequel to Cowboys And Aliens that nobody asked for. Here’s another thing nobody asked for: another boring country ballad where some rugged fella kisses his lady’s ass for three minutes. I don’t mean to sound crass; I consider myself the cowboy to my wife’s angel. But there are just so many songs like this on country radio, and unless you’ve got the pipes to pull off the sensitive-lug act—as cheesy as Tim McGraw is at times, he owns songs like this—it just seems like hollow pandering.
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: D
Thomas Rhett, “Something To Do With My Hands” (No. 19)
Steven: Thomas Rhett shares a record label, Valory Music Co., with Brantley Gilbert, though it’s obvious listening to Rhett’s debut single, “Something To Do With My Hands,” that they’re close musical cousins. If anything, this is an even more overt rock song. (It reminds me a little of Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands To Yourself,” which was a hit four years before Rhett was born.) Maybe it’s this kid’s devil-horns-throwing enthusiasm, or the sweetly innocent naughtiness of the lyric, but I fell in love with “Something To Do With My Hands” the first time I heard it. If this is the blueprint Music Row is using now to spin off new hits, I’ll gladly lap up more songs like it.
Genevieve: I, on the other hand, am not sure how many more of these glammed-up, tight-pantsed MOR rock songs masquerading as country I’m willing to lap up—I generally prefer a little more twang than these songs are offering—but I can still get behind “Something To Do With My Hands.” (She said, wiggling her eyebrows.) There’s a certain frat-boy charm to Rhett’s come-ons that matches the song’s swaggering instrumentation—though personally, I don’t know what any girl would see in a guy who sucks at pool and darts. “Something To Do With My Hands” is a one-night stand of a song that’s fun in the moment, if you don’t think about it too much, but kind of embarrassing to talk about later.
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: B
Zac Brown Band, “The Wind” (No. 26)
Steven: Zac Brown Band is one of the more heartwarming success stories of contemporary country music, with a fan base built slowly over the course of a decade with live shows and two strong-selling independent releases before Atlantic released The Foundation in 2008. Straddling the middle ground between country, the jam-band scene, and Parrotheads—Jimmy Buffet appeared on ZBB’s 2010 record, You Get What You Give—Zac Brown Band is poised to take the next step to superstardom with the forthcoming Uncaged, due next month. The lead single “The Wind” is a surprisingly understated teaser for a prospective blockbuster, but it’s a very effective one, with Brown’s warm tenor blending in homey country harmony over a jaunty bluegrass lick. It’s exactly the sort of thing ZBB does better than anyone in modern country.
Genevieve: Hey, here’s that twang I was talking about! Thank God someone on the country chart remembered fiddles and banjos still exist. Zac Brown Band is the sort of country act better suited to outdoor festivals than honky-tonks; it’s not rowdy, but it’s still fun, with a warm, down-home vibe that goes a long way toward selling the occasional noodle-y jam. “The Wind” is a great representative of the band’s somewhat hit-or-miss vibe, its bluegrass lick de-corned by modern-sounding flourishes and harmonies, and given extra heft with some incongruously sophisticated lyrics. It’s a nice reminder this week that modern country doesn’t always have to mean roaring electric guitars and cocky swagger.
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: A-