The Poison Pen, Volume 1: Because Lazy Songwriting Needs Called Out

Critical music reviews are something I’ve constantly gone back and forth on throughout my blogging experiences. They’ve been essential and cornerstone or how it’s been on this blog up to this point, no negative reviews. I’ve simply been ignoring the fusion country music I find to be bad and subpar. I think though I’ve realized that you ultimately need to have balance. While I’m going to continue to put most of the focus on the music I find to be good and share it with you through reviews, I’m now going to start sharing more critical views of music through a new feature called The Poison Pen. It’s really quite simple: this is where I’m going to share my negative reviews. They won’t be near as long as full reviews, but at the same time long enough to properly convey my points. So without further ado, here are some albums I do not like.

Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe 

I’ve seen a lot of praise for this album, but there’s no way I can get on board with it. I will give credit to the production on this album, which is quite good. But let’s get to what I can’t stand about this album and it’s the songwriting. It’s just flat-out mediocre, flat and at times pure lazy. The most egregious example is “Drank Like Hank.” The main hook of this song is “party like the Possum and we drank like Hank.” To the people who love this album: how is this acceptable? I guarantee Florida Georgia Line would be shredded for just blatant and forced name-dropping. But the Brothers Osborne apparently get a pass? Is it because of their lovable attitudes? Their politics lining up well with the country music press? I have zero issues with them expressing their politics and all artists should share their thoughts on important issues. But when the critics and writers are so blatantly giving free passes to certain artists and overreacting to other artists when they do the exact same thing, it kind of grinds my gears. There’s no consistency and great proof of the lack of integrity in music journalism today.

“Shoot Me Straight” is barely a song, three minutes of cookie-cutter lyrics and then a few more of some admittedly jam-y guitar play that saves it from being a complete waste of time. “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” is such a great theme and I love the imagery invoked by the lyrics. But then you get to the lazy hook that ruins it. I mean I get why they make such lazy hooks because so many marks eat this shit up. But if you want to be taken seriously in country music, name-dropping past legends isn’t going to do it. It’s just trite and meaningless. “Pushing Up Daisies” is the only well-written song on the album, as it actually has layers and a message. The rest of this album though? It’s just plain forgettable, in one ear and out the other. Sure I can listen to these songs, but they pass through me like air. The Brothers Osborne are capable of so much more than this album shows. But I don’t have faith of seeing improvement when so many people are endorsing this run-of-the-mill songwriting.

Ashley Monroe – Sparrow

Boring, boring, boring. That’s all that comes to mind when I think of this album. And not just boring, but there are multiple songs about making love and romance on here that are boring. I never thought sex songs could sound so boring until I heard this album. The songwriting wears thin quite quickly on this album, especially on a song like “Rita.” It feels like an endless loop of Monroe singing “Where are you Rita?” over and over and over. On Monroe’s last album she chased radio and pop country to mixed results. She tried to appeal to all and appealed to very little. On this album, she chases Americana to even worse results. In fact I would slap this album with the “Genericana” label. I have to question why she even went this route, as the Americana crowd is snobby, even harder to impress than pop country fans and even more dominated by boring white male artists. I wish I could get more into specifically why I don’t like this album, but it’s best summed up like this: you listen to it a few times and you have zero desire to revisit it. I hope Monroe can get back to the sincerity and quality of her debut album.

Tami Neilson – Sassafrass! 

This one might come as a shocker, especially after I praised the lead single of this album. But I just can’t get into this album. What this album ultimately challenges is the great balance between art and entertainment. While the themes of gender inequality and sexism in society are topics of great importance that need to be discussed and issues I wholeheartedly agree with Neilson on, she fails to make this album an interesting listen. My problems are largely focused around the production, which feels like hasn’t progressed since Dynamite. It’s the same old retro, throwback sound that is so tiring and old, especially in country music. I especially don’t like the jazzier songs that are essentially audio NyQuil. It shouldn’t feel this arduous to get through an album. Political and social commentary are essential topics that should be in music. But if it feels this forced and repetitive, it ultimately fails to accomplish what it sets out to do and that’s getting people to listen and think about it. It’s an admirable effort from Neilson that unfortunately fails to land.

Dierks Bentley – The Mountain

This might be the stalest and one of the most disappointing albums I’ve heard in 2018. It felt like it had so much promise with the mountain theme, a Brandi Carlile feature and Bentley raving about the inspiration he got from the excellent Way Out West album from Marty Stuart. In the iTunes review of this album, it says this album was written by a “team of Nashville songwriters” in a cabin studio in the mountains. It sounds like it. For an album like this to be effective, it needs to feel personal and immersive in the mountain setting. Instead this is the same old processed songwriting we’ve heard out of Nashville with the mountain setting copy and pasted in. The only redeeming song on this album is “Burning Man,” ironically with the Brothers Osborne as a feature. I love the energy of the song and it’s the perfect opener.

This rest of this album is riddled with the most paint-by-the-numbers lyrics I’ve heard this year, with the most egregious offender being “Goodbye in Telluride,” the kind of song where you know exactly what you’re getting 30 seconds in with a lame hook to boot. “The Mountain” is a generic motivation song with obvious mountain clichés. I thought “Woman, Amen” would sound better within the context of the album, but it’s still just as inoffensive and sterile when first released. Bentley somehow manages to waste a Brandi Carlile feature on “Travelin’ Light,” the kind of song that feels substantive, but then you listen closer and realize there isn’t much being said. “My Religion” is so saccharine that I gag when Bentley utters the line “your love is my religion.” So original! I could spend more time breaking down how bad this album is, but it would be a waste of time on such banal and vanilla music. This might as well be a Chris Young album.

Feel free to inquire in the comments for more clarification on my thoughts on any of these albums.

4 thoughts on “The Poison Pen, Volume 1: Because Lazy Songwriting Needs Called Out

  1. Zack July 26, 2018 / 8:43 am

    Port Saint Joe –

    I agree here. What bugs me about “Drank Like Hank” is that they glorify the drinking done, when in fact, Jones and Williams didn’t glorify it at all. It was their crutch in life and something they tried to get over. But yeah, the rest of the album just sounds incredibly boring to me. “Slow Your Roll,” “Weed … ,” and “Little Bit Trouble” all put me to sleep. I like “Shoot Me Straight” more than you do, but yeah, to me the only other good track is “Pushing Up Daises.” Even the closing track feels generic despite its serious nature.

    Sparrow –

    God yes. Off-hand, I don’t even remember a single song from the album outside of “Orphan.” Let me look at the tracklist now … yeah I still don’t remember anything from this.

    Sassafrass –

    This was … strange. That’s all I can really say about it. Not for me in the slightest.

    The Mountain –

    This is the only one where I disagree but I see and respect where you’re coming from. I like the song, “The Mountain” for its production (Tom Petty meets elements of country and bluegrass) and that ending solo. Even the simpler songs like “Living” and “Travelin’ Light” are songs I can enjoy, but I mostly enjoy it for its production.

    I haven’t absorbed many new releases in 2018 lately, but if I had to do my own in recent memory, I’d say Paul Cauthen’s Have Mercy EP and Jason Boland’s latest spring to mind. Boland’s has maybe three of my favorite songs of the year, but as an album it’s a complete bore.

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    • Josh July 26, 2018 / 12:08 pm

      I’m glad you mention that about Jones and Williams, especially the latter. Hank was in incredible pain due to a condition he was born with and alcohol was one of the few things that helped him cope due to the lack of medical options at that time. But current artists love to namedrop him alongside alcohol. I’m pretty much through with artists namedropping, as it’s just a cop out of writing something with more meaning.

      The other thing I didn’t mention about that Monroe album is I thought there was a strange lack of promotion considering she’s on a major label. It’s almost as if after the huge media blitz on the last album they thought doing the exact opposite would magically help. It feels like Monroe has sunk so much since her debut, which created a ton of buzz and critical acclaim.

      I really wish I could have enjoyed The Mountain and it sucks this is the second straight Bentley album I don’t enjoy.

      I haven’t listened to the Boland album because I feel like they’ve always been a tad overhyped. I remember their last album was similar to what you describe the new one: a few really good songs, but unable to make a complete album. I’m definitely agreement on Cauthen’s album. Like the Neilson album, it tries too hard to be political on the opening track and really fails to say anything meaningful. It just sort of rambles on. As for the rest, it just isn’t interesting or memorable. I don’t really get what Cauthen was thinking with these songs, but they’re noticeably worse than his debut album. It feels like most country listeners who you think would be interested in it ignored it too.

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  2. Brett July 28, 2018 / 11:34 am

    This article shocked me a little. I personally like The Mountain and love Port Saint Joe. Everyones different which is what makes music great.
    I thought Dierks was a big step forward for him after the monstrosity that was Black. Big time players on that record like Sam Bush and others. Thought was a mix of Riser and Up On the Ridge which i feel were Bentleys strongest releases.
    As for Port Saint Joe, this record just has a laid back jam band vibe to it that i felt was refreshing. Youre a stickler for lyrics and songwriting which is important but as a stressed out dad in his 30s, sometimes im just not in the mood for Dylanesque lyrics or Isbell southern liberal agendas. And i like Dylan and Isbell both but some writing while superb, just gives me a headache. Lol. Thinking mans rock if you will. 7 min guitar solo laced tracks were a thing of the past and sound great here. Each track just kinda flows to the other.
    For mainstream country, these two albums are huge leaps….i’ll take it!

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    • Josh July 28, 2018 / 4:08 pm

      I can totally understand needing a break from lyrical based music. I just couldn’t get into these albums unfortunately. Trust me I tried to like them.

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