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Song Reviews

Ashton Shepherd – “Look it Up”

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Before Jamey Johnson’s ascension, there was another Alabaman slated as a new savior of old country music. Born and raised in Coffeeville—a place best described as way the hell down south—Ashton Shepherd emerged with a thick backwoods drawl and a sassy swagger that stood in startling contrast to her silky voiced contemporaries.

On the heels of her first single, “Takin’ Off This Pain,” her debut album (Sounds So Good) was greatly hyped and anxiously awaited by critics, many of whom cited her as one of the key players in a coming revitalization of a ‘traditional’ country sound.

But the twangy single sputtered at radio, and outside of the critical sphere, the album landed quietly and quickly faded out of sight. She released an even twangier follow up (“Sounds So Good”), which had just enough juice to make up to #21. And that, as the saying goes, was that; there was no shower of accolades, nor a coronation—just obscurity and the hope of another chance to live up to both potential and expectation.

It was quite an abrupt departure for such a highly-touted talent, especially one who managed to crank out two Top 20 hits—a relatively impressive feat for a new female in today’s radio environment.

Now, two years later, Shepherd has that second chance. “Look It Up” is a spunky little kiss-off track that busts out of the gate with a wicked groove and convincing attitude, although those of us who remember her from way back when should instantly notice that something’s missing.

Shepherd’s signature twang has been ratcheted down this time around, leaving her sounding like a less washed-out Gretchen Wilson. She skewers her unfaithful lover with just the right level or scorn, but that raw, unbridled and unwieldy drawl that gave her voice such character and such satisfying color has been largely stripped away.

Here, her tone is clearer and her enunciation is sharper, but the result is a song that’s bland and boring in comparison to the fare found on her first record.

On “Look It Up,” Shepherd’s voice is more welcoming and accessible than ever before—it’s a polished, shinier Shepherd. Indeed, she sounds like a more refined singer.

Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe it’s not—time will judge whether or not country fans embrace this less grating incarnation.

Either way, though, the price was high. With this release, Shepherd’s gone from someone in a position to shift the the center to someone who is merely chasing it.

And, as Jamey Johnson has proved, sometimes fitting into the center ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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Song Reviews

John Rich – “Another You”

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For a guy who is supposed to be a genius songwriter, John Rich sure does seem to be running out of ideas. World/Girl, Do/You, Out/Down–these are the best rhymes a three-time ASCAP Songwriter of the Year can come up with? Maybe he spent all his good lines on “Raising McCain.”

Rich’s songwriting has never been accused of being especially sophisticated (actually, neither has Rich), but he has nonetheless demonstrated a high aptitude for clever turns of phrase and unique, original word choice. The first single from his upcoming solo project showcases none of that. “Another You” is a song that sounds like it was written when Rich was really, really bored. Because it’s really, really boring.

And really, really bad.

A million lyrical miles away from the interesting, edgy material that made up Horse of a Different Color (the album that resurrected Rich’s flagging career and launched him into Super Galactic stardom as one half of Big & Rich–we miss you Big Kenny), “Another You” is neither interesting nor edgy.

Rather, it is completely effortless–and I obviously don’t mean that as a compliment, but that Rich literally seems to have put zero effort into its composition, almost as if he pulled lines out of a paper bag, or spent a few minutes aimlessly rearranging those little magnets that stick on your refrigerator door. You know, the ones with words on them that can be made to say things like “Pick up milk” or “Take the trash out” or “Reviewing this song makes me want to punch myself in the face.”

Aside from the fact that this song gets its lyrical ass kicked by David Kersh’s 1997 hit “Another You” (written by Brad Paisley), Rich’s take on post-breakup regret plays as incomprehensibly unbelievable. Decidedly timid and conservative in both concept and execution, it’s just hard to take Rich, country’s drama king, seriously when he goes into sensitive crooner mode.

Part of that is because Rich is a poor singer, comparatively speaking–one with a tragically limited range (a fact underscored without Big Kenny’s vocal support to add color to an otherwise drab voice).

More than this, however, is that the whole package just seems entirely fake and designed purely for commercial effect. Cue the strings. Here comes the crescendoing chorus, followed by the emotional vocal run on the final line. The song has no heart and the recording has no teeth. John Rich doesn’t care about this song. He didn’t care about it enough to invest himself in its composition, and that comes through in his singing.

So why should we care about it, either?

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Song Reviews

The Band Perry – “Hip To My Heart”

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New Republic Nashville sibling trio The Band Perry sprightly treks through country’s bubbly side on “Hip To My Heart,” a rollicking up-tempo that pulses with energy. Lead singer Kimberly Perry’s voice is a pleasant surprise, invigorating, full of youthful vitality and accented by just a hint of raspy grit.

Likewise, “Hip To My Heart” is happy, playful and charming. Unfortunately, it also makes very little sense. Written by the trio and Brett Beavers, the song opens with the lines “I like your lips like I like my Coca-Cola yeah/Oh how it pops and fizzes/You like my shirt like I like it when you hold my hand/The way it fits, it’s got me feeling, feeling lucky.

Things don’t improve much from there, as we’re run through a maze of distracting and unnecessary wordplay.

Any fashion pundit will tell you that trying too hard to appear hip is the surest way to come off looking like a poser. With “Hip To My Heart,” The Band Perry demonstrates a cool sense of musical style, crafting a song full of fresh hooks and interesting turns. But lyrically, this runs way too far outside the lines, so adorned with quirks that it comes off as gaudy and unmatched.

“Hip To My Heart” may also be mainstream country’s first big-time single to draw directly from the influence of label-mate Taylor Swift: By and for an very young audience, The Band Perry is more at home in a suburban mall than a seedy honky tonk. Without Swift’s same narrative deftness, however, “Hip To My Heart” amounts to pure fizz.

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Song Reviews

Katy Perry ft. Kanye West – “E.T.” (“Futuristic Lover”)

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No pop artist approaches matters of sexuality with more playful spunk than Katy Perry, but there’s no taste of cherry Chapstick present on her latest single.

There’s no “shocking” girl-on-girl action, no cotton candy-laced teenage dreams and no flashing of peacocks in the California sunshine. “E.T.” is raw sexual energy set to a dark, thumping, rave-inspired beat. And although Perry’s voice has never sounded bigger or richer, that energy alone is not enough to save what is otherwise a thoroughly second-rate song that’s plagued by an ill-conceived concept.

In “E.T.,” Perry sings that she’s ready for abduction, as well as the relatively innocuous lines, “Infect me with your lovin’/Fill me with your poison.” But as the song pounds along to a beat ripped from Russian duo t.A.T.u.’s 2002 hit “All The Things She Said,” the constant string of outer space metaphors quickly grows tiresome.

The song never rises to more than that multitude of metaphors, seemingly searching for as many different ways as possible to say the same thing (though never actually saying anything). The cut’s just over three minutes long, but by the time the easily-predicted ambient breakdown rolls around at the 2:07 mark, you’re likely to feel as though you’ve been thoroughly bludgeoned by the song’s weird commitment to its equally weird theme.

Perry’s trio of super producers (Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Ammo) have rendered this entirely danceable, but some of the lyrics (which they co-wrote with Perry) are unintentionally hilarious. In addition to calling the object of her affection “an alien,” Perry refers to him as “supersonic” (he’s very fast?) and says she wants to be “filled by his poison” (I don’t even want to know).

The line “Fill me with your poison” isn’t delivered with the same knowing smirk as “I wanna see your peacock.” Perry sings it with a straight face, apparently oblivious not to the sexual meaning of it but to the pure awkwardness of its construction.

All of this results in a slice of audio genre fiction that never transcends its plot, and which seems almost too ridiculous to actually come from the hands of four people as talented as these.

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