Wednesday, April 6, 2011

98 The Hard Way: The Year in Country Music, Quarter Two

Trisha Yearwood "Perfect Love" (#1 US & CAN Country)
Yeah, this is a country song. It's doing nothing more than a country song does. Doesn't bother with personality, just decent's a country song. [4]

Dixie Chicks "I Can Love You Better" (#7 US Country, #3 CAN Country, #77 US Pop)
At this point in time, Dixie Chicks were an anomaly. It wasn't their brashness, the thing that would sink their ship a half-decade later, that made them stand out so much as the fact that they were an actual group. Look at the songs I've been reviewing so far; outside of duets we're looking at a lean, lean time for country groups in terms of hits. So of course, the minute those pitch perfect harmonies started up it was a bit of stand out. The fact that it continued to get better as it went on cemented it's place as a favorite here. It may be your stock 'fuck her, I'm more awesome' song, but between the girls' harmonies, Natalie Maines' soulful yet bratty voice - it's annoying in theory but she makes it work - and the least worked over production of any song so far it manages to find that sweet spot for me. Shame it wasn't as big as their next couple because it's easily their superior in pretty much every way. [8]

Jo Dee Messina "Bye, Bye" (#1 US & CAN Country, #43 US Pop)
Phil Vassar strikes again, but unlike "Little Red Rodeo" he's not the best thing about this one. No, that would be the overall level of bad-ass that it compresses into its 3 minutes. Sure, Vassar's lyrics are a part of that - the first part of the chorus is distinctly his style and also perfectly realized in practice - but there's also the arrangement, which is much rawer and more driving than the norm, even for this kind of song. The guitars bite as much as they twang, the drums kick where they usually just's the closest to a full on rock song that the country hits of this year get. Of course there's also Messina, possibly the Miranda Lambert of the late 90s, giving the song an extra kick of attitude just where it needs it. It's the perfect collision of all these elements, essentially, and the rest of the year's hits have a remarkably high bar to clear before they can better this one. [9]

Jason McCoy "A Little Bit of You" (#3 CAN Country)
The reason that the timeliness of the sound in the last few Canadian hits I talked about was so surprising is that usually we're a few years behind in terms of development. Thus I was really expecting the Canadian contingent here to sound more like this; basically co-opting the sound  of country music from the late 80s/early 90s - lotsa Dwight Yoakam influence, basically - and parading it around like it was still relevant in the post-Shania/Garth/Tim landscape. I appreciate that, even if it's still about as produced as everything else here it at least has the decency to apply that style to an early make of the genre. It also helps that it would have stood out as a great addition to the era it clearly belongs in, mostly due to McCoy's roguish, raw vocals and the vague zydeco vibe that the track has. [7]

Shania Twain "You're Still the One" (#1 US & CAN Country, #2 US Pop, #7 CAN Pop)
Crime against music territory here. One count of perverting the fine art of the introductory monologue in such a way that the deep voiced guy from Boyz II Men probably died inside just hearing it. One count of excessive ukuleles to denote  cutesiness/whimsy. One count of unnecessarily forceful backing vocals that don't even seem to have a coherent harmony scheme. One count of recording a song about how special her love is, which is just never a thing you should do ever. If I keep thinking I'm sure to come up with more, but let's just leave it at that before I start getting too spitey.[2]

Garth Brooks "Two Piña Coladas" (#1 US & CAN Country)
Now you know how I feel about shitty Jimmy Buffet wannabe songs. [2]

Faith Hill "This Kiss" (#1 US & CAN Country, #7 US Pop, #24 CAN Pop)
"This Kiss" is stupid without being stupid, if you understand what I'm driving at. It's devoid of substance, so light and frothy that it's poised to to disappear at any moment, but it's not stupid. It's also ecstatic enough that even the moments that hedge closer to actual stupidity escape that classification. The result is a song that is exactly the right kind of stupid and the perfect kind of stupid to give Faith her big pop crossover. It probably helps that unlike a lot of her more lovey-dovey material at this point this is more about the rush of infatuation than rubbing how great her and Tim McGraw's love is in your face. That's a love song trope that I can tolerate at least. [5]

Steve Wariner "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" (#2 US & CAN Country)
I respect this song a lot more than I enjoy it. I mean, it's very clearly a personal song for Wariner - one of the country old guard from my days of actively paying attention to this stuff - and in the landscape of country radio, where the songs are all about impersonality so that the listener can project themselves onto them more easily, that counts for a lot. But that aside, this is just a bit too maudlin for my liking. It's the whole cry-while-smiling thing that I just never have much use for, though this is a better version of it than most. [5]

Randy Travis "Out of My Bones" (#2 US Country, #1 CAN Country, #65 US Pop)
Speaking of the old guard, I can't think of any artist from that era that I'd be more surprised to see to see with a hit in the climate of 1998 country, yet here we are. The best thing is that in getting that late career hit he didn't seem to sacrifice any of his usual style; this stands proudly alongside any number of his older hits without sticking out like a sore thumb. Plus that introductory violin/guitar figure is striking in its beauty even before you've been clued in to the fact that this is Randy Travis doing what he's done best for a long while now. [7]

Tracy Byrd "I'm from the Country" (#3 US Country, #1 CAN Country, #63 US Pop)
There are plenty of things I hate in country music, but I don't think any other song type irritates me more than the 'country folk are REAL, y'all' song. The fact that you could easily slot this into a fucking Rodney Atkins album and not disrupt its feeling is a testament to the level of schlock we're talking about here. [3]

George Strait "I Just Want to Dance with You" (#1 US & CAN Country, #61 US Pop)
I'm trying to limit my cop out reviews to Garth Brooks here, but like Brooks there's only so much you can say about later period George Strait that goes beyond saying that it's exactly what you expect. This is lighter and more island-tinged - not Buffet-y in a way that raises my ire but there's a bit of him in here for better or worse - with some nice violin/guitar work in the bridge, but in the end it doesn't go beyond being exactly what you'd expect at this point. Like I said, you're not gonna be surprised by anything Strait does at this point because it's impossible for him to deviate that far from what he does. [5]

Tim McGraw "One of These Days" (#2 US Country, #1 CAN Country, #74 US Pop)
I'm beginning to think that the Everywhere era was McGraw's least compelling in a lot of ways. So far all of the singles have an air of 'whatever, people will eat it up no matter how much I invest in it' to them, and while he'd have been right it doesn't mean that the material isn't pretty awful. Once again, this should have been a gimme of a song for him, but there's nothing to his performance that suggests anything beyond going through the motions and cashing a check. Luckily his next few albums had more vigor in them, because to see an not-inconsiderable amount of charm and personality wasted on such mediocre performances is mildly depressing. [4]

Reba McEntire with Brooks & Dunn "If You See Him/If You See Her" (#1 US & CAN Country)
Would it be overstating things too much to call this collaboration ideal? I'm lukewarm on the song itself, but in theory  I can't think of a more logical pairing than McEntire and B&D; both McEntire and Dunn have an ease with dialing in just the right amount of drama to their performance, and B&D's over-riding sense of harmonizing should carry over well to collaborations like this. And it does work much better in these hands than it probably would in any other duo's, but that doesn't quite bring it to the level I expected given the people involved. That said, the last verse is vocal interplay nirvana for the purpose of this arena. [6]

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