FGL vs BSC: Whose “Stay” is Better?

Welcome to the first edition of a new feature that I’m calling Cover-parisons, which is clearly a terrible name for many reasons but, until I can think up a better one, will have to do for now. In this feature I take a popular song, compare it with its more-popular cover version and decide which one is better. That’s about it. In this edition I’ll be discussing the song “Stay”, originally recorded by Southern rock band Black Stone Cherry and later covered by country-pop superstars Florida Georgia Line.

I like Black Stone Cherry. I do not like Florida Georgia Line. I’m warning you now: this comparison might be one-sided.

Context:

In light of the band’s growing success, Black Stone Cherry were forced to collaborate with several songwriters for their third record, Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea. Because music executives are such freaking geniuses, this meant that a band known for a forceful but earnest Southern rock sound ended up with an album clogged with anemic, trudge-along ballads that didn’t reflect their sound even the slightest bit. Some of the lighter songs on the album are better than others – “Like I Roll“, for example, clicks for the most part because it has a breezy charm that hearkens back to their Southern rock roots and, therefore, reminds us why we started listening to this band in the first place – but mostly they’re just forgettable and weak. “Stay” is no exception: a weak song from a weak album, it’s predictable, generic, committee-written and ultimately just plain not enjoyable or worthwhile to listen to. So why did Florida Georgia Line decide to cover this song? Hm…

Actually, if you’re not from the USA you might have another, more pressing question that needs answering: what’s a Florida Georgia Line? That’s understandable – they only have one charting single here in the UK, a remix of their song “Cruise”, which reached #75 in the charts for one week before dropping out completely. In America, however, these guys are HUGE. See, mainstream country music has been getting pretty bro-ey over in the States for the past couple of years or so, incorporating heavy elements of hip hop and dance music while narrowing its lyrical focus to girls, trucks, beer and having a good time. FGL are generally considered to be one of the leading artists of this “bro-country” movement, in the same way Darth Vader led all those clone troopers into the Jedi Temple in Episode III. Their version of “Stay” was recorded for their debut LP, Here’s to the Good Times, back in 2012, and was “reworked” by co-writer Joey Moi for the two men to do their thing over. Whatever that thing was it ended up getting the cover to #1 on the US Hot Country Songs chart and #28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Well done, I guess.

 The versions:

Black Stone Cherry (the original):

Florida Georgia Line (the cover). Unless you enjoy watching pretty women sitting outside burning trailers looking miserable, you’ll find the actual song thirty seconds in:

So, what are our comparison points here? Vocals? Production? Instrumentation? Well, for the most part the song itself doesn’t change much from point A to point B, so in terms of FGL “ruining” the song I think I can stay clear of that landmine for now. Actually, I might have to hand it to FGL for not messing this up too much: their noted hip hop influences are nowhere to be found here, apart from the copious Auto-tune that now seems to have become a hallmark of the group’s sound. Given both its respective contexts, it’s clear that the song was written with a commercial approach in mind, so each recording is produced with a nice, polished sheen that makes it a pleasant experience for the casual listener, but also has the effect of sucking most of the passion out of it. That’s a problem for Black Stone Cherry, whose sound has always been a little too rough and dirty for the pop market, but it fits Florida Georgia Line’s MO pretty well – let’s be honest, this is not a band reaching for high art here, and that’s fine. In terms of musicality it keeps the original’s yearning sentimentality in place while shining it up for the kids, so in terms of playing to the song’s musical strengths I guess FGL have an advantage there.

I was kinda hoping, for my first comparison post, to go into this big thing about how different the two versions are and how they each compliment and detriment the song, but the two versions are so maddeningly similar there’s not a lot to discuss. The only major difference that I will (or apparently can) discuss is the vocal delivery. Now, with cornball lyrics like these you really need to go all in with your singing. “I’d sell my soul just to see your face”? That’s the sort of daft romantic statement you really can’t whistle and hum your way through. You’ve got to give that weird transaction mentioned back there every bit of power and drama you can if you want to sell it to me (I matter in all this, right?). This is where Black Stone Cherry take the edge: Chris Robertson’s voice has the power and the passion needed to elevate such trite lyrics from the back of a GSCE student’s notebook. It has depth, character, soul and that quintessential rawness that lends it a much-needed shade of authenticity.

Tyler Hubbard’s weak, nasal delivery, on the other hand, has about as much character as a Porky Pig cartoon from the Thirties. Oh, he goes for it, make no mistake – it might even be the most impassioned performance he’s ever given. It’s just not very convincing. It sounds too flat and drawn out, like somebody stuck with the vocal part while playing Rock Band with his friends. Do I think this guy would really break his bones just to hear my pain? As if. That’s a nonsense line if ever I heard one, but when Robertson sings it I at least want to believe him. With Hubbard it sounds less like he has a broken heart and more like his numbers didn’t come up in the lottery. And yes, I know there are two members of FGL, but the other guy only chimes in every now and then and his voice is so buried in the mix it hardly matters anyway. I’m not even totally sure why he’s even there, to be honest – Hubbard’s carrying what weight there is here. But that’s a discussion for another day.

So it seems about even here. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out… er, pick which is best. Yeah, as much as I love Harry Hill there’s no point fighting over this runt of a song. So I’m deciding between two recordings of a song that’s already pretty bad – I feel like I’m caught between two similar but equally unappealing forces, as if I’m…

Huh, look at that – I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Verdict:

I’ve got to hand this to the original. “Stay” is a weak song that doesn’t fit well with Black Stone Cherry’s sound, but it’s far more convincing as a want-you-back ballad in their hands. The only benefit I can see of the FGL version is that it might get a few of their fans to listen to some Black Stone Cherry, but even that’s a shame because “Stay” is such a poor representation of what BSC are capable of. If you get some preteen girls turning up expecting more sappy love ballads about emotions and experiences they’ve never actually had, are they really going to stick around for something like “Maybe Someday” or “Blind Man“? Hardly, considering some of the commenters on FGL’s version even referred to it as the most romantic song they’ve ever heard. Obviously these are people who have not heard that many songs and should really consider expanding their musical tastes.

On that note, Black Stone Cherry have a new album out. It’s really rather excellent. This first post was a bit of a letdown, though. Next time I’ll make sure I have something a bit tastier to work with. Thanks for reading, anyway.

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