Friday, April 8, 2011

98 The Hard Way: The Year i nCountry Music, Quarter Four

Tim McGraw “Where the Green Grass Grows” (#1 US & CAN Country, #79 US Pop)
I think that this confirms my suspicions about McGraw checking out at this point of his career. Even if this wasn't the potential slam dunk that “Just to See You Smile” was, there's still that niggling feeling that he's not giving it his all at this point. Not to say that this would have been saved by him investing in it a bit more – it's in that 'country folks are real, y'all' subset that I have so little use for, although not as jingoisitic as those tend to be so it's got that going for it – but it might have been something beyond the serviceable nothing it comes off as as rendered here. [5]

Alan Jackson “I'll Go on Loving You” (#3 US Country, #2 CAN Country)
OK, I was not expecting something like this at all. The words that are coming to my mind as I listen to this are a litany of adjectives I'd never imagine being places in the vicinity of Alan Jackson – sensual, tasteful, moody, understated. I feel like I've entered bizarro world here, but once the oddness of it wears off it reveals an odd truth: if you translate an R 'n' B slow jam to country radio, it makes it better. Jackson – man it feels odd typing this – isn't doing anything that your run of the mill R 'n' B loverman crooner hasn't done umpteen times before, but in this format it's surprisingly great, not only because it's not done in an overbearing manner but because the backdrop is oddly austere and evocative vs the more slow-jam-centric style you'd be expecting. And once again, this is done by possibly the most whitebread of all whitebread country artists. I'm still in shock. [8]

Shania Twain “Honey I'm Home” (#1 US & CAN Country)
Much as I appreciate that this is not a treacly ballad, it nevertheless highlights the things that annoy me most about Shania as a performer. In short, it's the fact that there isn't a performance so much as there's a stilted approximation of one. The track is energetic and sprightly enough to work on a musical level, but there's nothing added to it by Shania, no attitude or even emotion. The performer shouldn't be just another form of plastic top coat for a track like this, but Shania seems to strive on proving that you can make a living off of it. [4]

Mark Wills “Don't Laugh at Me” (#2 US & CAN Country, #73 US Pop)
Well meaning schlock. Nothing more, nothing less. Sure it's an understated performance, but it's the sort of song that sets my teeth on edge by trying to get a trite and overly reductive message across – in this case 'be nice to outcasts.' The vaguely Christian pandering of the chorus doesn't do it any favors either. [4]

Garth Brooks “You Move Me” (#3 US Country, #1 CAN Country)
Now you know how I feel about more upbeat love songs. [4]

Dixie Chicks “Wide Open Spaces” (#1 US & CAN Country, #41 US Pop)
Is it a coincidence that the Chicks' least fiery/sassy single so far is the one I find the least interesting? Sure, it retains the rootsy sound of its predecessors and kicks up the harmonies – always appreciated, ladies – but it seems somewhat listless and purposeless next to the previous two hits that its album spawned. I still think it's one of the better things to grace this project, mostly on account of the group's sound and overall dynamic, but at the same time it's one of the most forgettable of my upper tier singles here. [7]

Lee Ann Womack “A Little Past Little Rock” (#2 US Country, #11 CAN Country, #43 US Pop)
Lee Ann Womack has always seemed a bit out of step with the times, and I mean that as a huge compliment. In a time where the most successful of female country singers were heading into more and more pop/AC leaning directions she was almost defiantly traditionalist in her approach. Hell, even her own big pop break through was more Reba (classic version) than Shania, and this one is even more classicist in its framework. From the deep, resonant upright bass that introduces it on down through the deft production that – much like Dixie Chicks at this point – makes its lack of 'production' in the modern Nashville sense into a great asset. Womack's dead-ringer-for-Allison Krauss vocals on top of it are just the icing on the cake. [9]

Paul Brandt “Outside the Frame” (#3 CAN Country)
Yet again, we have a single that uses lack of studio-fuckery to its advantage. To be fair, I'm really not a fan of Brandt's vocals or of the lyrics themselves, but the overall sound and arrangement of the song almost makes me want to bump it up a few spots. I know it's not deserving of that boost, but at times it tricks me into believing that it is...especially towards the end when I expect the track to climax anew but it just fades away instead. [6]

Prairie Oyster “Canadian Sunrise” (#5 CAN Country)
Not one of their better tunes to be honest. It's got the right kind of vibe going, with the full band dynamic reigning supreme and a nice helping of old school piano, but even with that in its favor there's something unremarkable about the song itself. Maybe it's that it veers uncomfortably into unnecessarily patriotic waters – see, I get annoyed when my own people do that shit too – but something about just doesn't quite hit for me, despite it sounding right up my alley on paper. [6]

Ty Herndon “It Must Be Love” (#1 US Country, #10 CAN Country, #38 US Pop)
Like I said when I was talking about it in the one-hit wonders section, the way that Herndon sells the rush of infatuation absolutely makes this track. The more I think on it, the more I would expect certain parts of this to register as creepy and/or stalkerish, yet there's nothing in the vocals but pure puppy love, and it's borderline adorable. [8]

Faith Hill “Let Me Let Go” (#1 US & CAN Country, #33 US Pop)
The biggest gripe that I have with the songs I'm either raging against or dismissing out of hand here is that all the character is buffed away in favor of a smooth finish that may play well to the genre's fanbase but leaves me cold unless the singer is particularly charismatic. Now, Faith has it in her to be charismatic enough to elevate the material, but at this point she seems so determined to grab that bright, shiny AC crossover medallion that Shania paved the road towards that she gives that character up in favor of utter blandness. This shines through especially on her ballads, which I'm never that enamored with anyways even when she is imbuing it with some sort of personality, which makes something like “Let Me Let Go” a particularly tough slog. Keep in mind that I do go into each of these songs wanting to find the good, I really so. Track like this just make the good far too difficult to find. [3]

Brooks and Dunn “Husbands and Wives” (#1 US Country, #2 CAN Country, #36 US Pop)
The midtempo number is and always will be the Achilles heel for Brooks and Dunn. They can sell their rockers and even their sappiest of ballads with some degree of skill, but the middle ground is often where they falter the most obviously. In that light it figures that this is their worst entry of the year, but it actually goes beyond that his time. The whole song just sounds incredibly awkward, like it should either be played slower or faster...any tempo besides the one its in would probably do. Furthermore it's seemingly at odds with the vocal melody in a way that seems downright amateurish. I dunno what went wrong here, but the version we have just doesn't sound right, and not in a good way. [4]

Terri Clark “You're Easy on the Eyes” (#1 US & CAN Country, #40 US Pop)
It's just occurred to me what it is that makes me like Terri Clark more than I'd assume I should; her vocals don't have that practiced, smoothed over sound that so many Nashville females adopt. Not that we're in pure raw untrained vocal territory here, but they've still got an edge to them that gives a song like this an extra degree of bite than it would probably have in other hands. So once again, we have an instance where the performance elevates the material – fittingly stock ending to the saga of the country charts in 1998 isn't it? [6]

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