You’d be forgiven if Carrie Underwood’s current hit left you a little underwhelmed. After the one-two murderoo of “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs,” the releases that announced Underwood’s ascension from superstar singer to potentially cool artist, the Narnia-inspired ”See You Again” may feel like a retreat back to simpler days. Actually, with its mechanical piano, bloated chorus production, and vague celestial imagery, it almost sounds like a descendant of “Inside Your Heaven,” Underwood’s sappy American Idol single. Uh oh!
But if you can accept that songs of this flavor will probably always be part of the Carrie Underwood experience, you may find that she’s improved the recipe a good bit over time.
It helps that “See You Again” is a decent composition on its own merits, with a stirring – if safe – theme of reconnecting with the loved ones we’ve lost or been separated from, plus some enjoyable – if gratuitous – “woah”s and “oh”s.
But the crucial difference is in the performance. For all the hosannas Underwood’s huge voice received early on, tracks like this demonstrate how much she’s still progressing both technically and interpretively. Early cuts like “Inside Your Heaven” or “Lessons Learned” were occasionally mired by reedy tones, robotic vibrato, or impassive phrasing; you had the sense of a singer finding her way around her instrument. Not so for the muscular, dynamic presence who drives this song. She’s gradually growing into her preordained destiny as a country-pop diva, confidently weaving runs and slurs into the fabric of the melody, and creating fun, little Carrie-isms like her quirky pronunciation of “again,” her whips into head-voice whenever she hits the title phrase, or her impassioned (if unintentional) belting of her own name. (“I will carry!”)
Does that sound like teasing? It’s praise. You can fall in love with a singer’s voice, but you stay in love because of the distinct ways they use it. It’s my opinion that Carrie Underwood still needs a new producer, someone who will encourage her more ambitious instincts and stop putting so much bland noise behind her, drowning out potential nuances. But I’m finally enjoying the Carrie we have at this moment in time, too. There’s something there.
Written by Carrie Underwood, Hillary Lindsey & David Hodges
Could there possibly be a more emotionally and sentimentally charged record released this year?
A heartfelt tribute to the departed George Jones that celebrates his incredible legacy of music, “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is pure catnip for country music lovers. More than just a list of nicknames for the Possum and shout-outs for some of his best songs, the reverence is coupled with relevance for his signature sound.
Randy Travis and Joe Nichols represent two successive generations that were shaped by Jones’ influence, and they weren’t even among the first generation of artists to be shaped by his work. “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” makes the case for Jones’ immortality, with his voice living on in heaven while it still plays down here in every lonely jukebox joint.
All that would’ve been enough to pull on the heartstrings. But then, Travis nearly joined Jones in immortality this summer, a stunning and frightening turn of events that makes this record all the more painful to listen to. Much like Jones on his final recordings, time and hard living have weathered Randy’s voice to the point that it’s nearly unrecognizable. It wasn’t until Joe Nichols piped in that I was sure it was Randy Travis that started off the song.
We lionize our legends and our icons. Their accomplishments on records seem almost superhuman, a byproduct of artists in their prime being captured for timeless posterity. Sometimes, a tragedy happens that freezes a Patsy Cline or a Hank Williams in that moment forever. More often, we have to watch these wondrous talents slowly drift toward their own mortality, as more notes fade out of reach and even the greatest stylists start to lose their distinctive style.
It’s painful. I want more Randy Travis records, just like I want more of the George Jones records that will never come. Time can keep running for a long time, but it always runs out in the end.
“Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is such an amazing tribute to Jones. I wish that listening to it didn’t make me feel so sad.
It’s fun to imagine the songwriting meeting that produced this. It sounds like somebody just said, “So let’s write a song about a parking lot party before a concert”… so they did.
In theory, a song attempting to encapsulate that pre-show warm-up experience is not a bad idea. The problem is that “Parking Lot Party” is all volume and no content – all packaging and no product. There seems to be little idea behind the song other than the fact that parking lot parties are a thing, and repeating the phrase “parking lot party” over and over again.
Part of the problem is simply that the song tries too hard to make you like it, shamelessly laying on every gimmick under the sun, including an spoken intro by Nashville DJs Big D and Bubba, crowd sound effects, and a canned singalong chorus at the end. There’s hardly a hook or clever line to validate the song’s existence, and the record as a whole is made so cheesy that it’s hard to listen to.
The song reminds me in some ways of Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” in that both songs portray scenes of summery recreation in a mostly literal and one-dimensional manner. The difference is that “Pontoon” is catchy – this isn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with ear candy, but you’ve got to remember to add the flavor.
Written by Lee Brice, Rhett Akins, Thomas Rhett, and Luke Laird
The Motor City might not exactly be known as a hotbed of country music talent, but it happens to be the home of one talented country voice by the name of Danielle Car. She has yet to ink a record deal, but has been actively making the rounds and building a fan following with her independent efforts.
Car has continually cited California country legend Dwight Yoakam as a favorite artist as well as a primary musical influence, but you don’t have to read her bio to guess that – it’s clear from one listen of her current single “Turn You On.” A driving Bakersfield-via-Detroit-style production puts the listener right in the middle of the dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music as Car’s narrator attempts to drown her blues in liquor, only to stumble into a new romance quite accidentally.
But while the sonic stylings may be an open nod to the legends of California country, the fun, flirtatious melody and the irresistible energy in Car’s performance are anything but derivative. What impresses most about “Turn You On” is the fact that Car honors her influences while still bringing plenty of herself to the project. The Yoakam influence in particular is unmistakable, but “Turn You On” remains first and foremost a Danielle Car record.
Far from displaying the complacency that weighs down far too much of today’s country music, Car delivers a blast of spirited country fun that begs to be replayed over and over again. The country radio listening experience would be a lot more engaging if today’s hits showed half as much personality.
Being a great songwriter can be just as much about being distinctive and unique as it is about writing great songs. Being a great songwriter that records her own material requires not getting in the way of your own song.
“Red” isn’t necessarily a great song, but it is a song that could only be written by Taylor Swift. It has a lot of lines that would be awkward on their own but somehow make sense when thrown together. She makes fairly benign observations throughout, but they gather meaning as she goes along. Her writer’s voice is so authoritative that she can compare a lover’s quarrel to a difficult crossword puzzle, with the punchline being that “there’s no right answer”, and it sounds like such an obvious metaphor that you’re surprised no one thought of it before.
I really do like the song, and I think that I’d put in heavy rotation if it wasn’t for the bewildering echo effect on the title word when it ends the chorus. I’m totally baffled. I happen to like a lot of electronic music, and the effect itself is somewhat interesting, if not particularly compelling. It feels like a gimmicky flourish that you’d use to cover up the weakness of a song, rather than undermining the strength of a very good one.
I’ve been around enough to know the difference between a sound that’s progressive and forward-thinking, and one that’s a novelty that will soon be dated. “Red” as a record would hold up a bit better over time if the song had been allowed to stand on its own.
One of my longest running criticisms of contemporary country music is the disappearance of the working poor. It’s a segment of the population that has been growing exponentially, but the genre that has historically been associated with chronicling their experiences has instead chosen to lionize and romanticize small town partying and country living. Lots of songs about Sunday mornings and Saturday nights, but almost none about those tiring days in between.
This necessary documentation has found some mainstream success through Kacey Musgraves, who has a keen writer’s eye for capturing the specific realities of the daily existence of working class folks. “Blowin’ Smoke” is one of the most effective examples of her talent in this area, crafting an entire song around a smoke break for exhausted waitresses with limited options and dwindling hope for the future. They talk a big game about getting away someday, but they know that opportunities are as impossible to grab as the smoke departing from their cigarettes.
Unfortunately, the monotony of their experiences is replicated a bit too faithfully in the song’s production and melody, which both plod along without any sign of a hook. I get that they were trying to be faithful to the theme of the song, but if Musgraves is going to become the modern day Merle Haggard that we need, she must keep in mind that as vivid as Hag’s classic songs were in their depiction of the struggling underclass, they were also quite catchy and had memorable vocals and guitar work, too.
Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
There’s such an obvious trend of genre-hopping between pop, rock, and country right now that I can totally understand the enthusiasm surrounding Kelly Clarkson dabbling with a switch to country music.
After all, if we’re going to have pop and rock stars crossing over anyway, we might as well get one of the best ones, right? She’s got a strong knowledge of and affinity for, at the very least, the past two generations of country music. Her pipes are pretty darn good, too. I prefer the purity of Carrie Underwood’s voice, but there are many who feel the first Idol is still the best.
There’s only one problem, and it’s a big one. “Tie it Up” is not a country song. Not by any stretch of the imagination, and my imagination is pretty stretched out at this point. It sounds like some Globe Sessions-era Sheryl Crow album filler, honestly. There’s some banjo, but come on. You can find that on a Kid Rock record.
I know, I know. Kid Rock had a country hit, too. It wasn’t country either. We’ve reached a point where there’s so much distance between the country music radio format and country music itself that the former has very little to do with the latter. It doesn’t even matter if the country format is the home base. Lady Antebellum is an Adult Contemporary band that happened to get its start on country radio. Jason Aldean is a southern rocker who was born thirty years too late for rock radio, so we’ll just call him country.
I have no doubt that Kelly Clarkson could do an actual country record, but this isn’t one. It’s a pretty bland song anyway, notable only for the fact that it’s her first solo single being sent primarily to country radio. It’d be pretty unremarkable if not for that fact, which is destined to be little more than a piece of trivia anyway.
So, welcome to country radio, Kelly. You’ll find it’s not that different from the Adult Top 40 stations you’re used to dominating and you won’t have to change a thing to fit in.
Written by Ashley Arrison, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne
Writing a song about a current event that pulls at the heartstrings is a difficult thing to accomplish without seeming opportunistic, not to mention that the part of current fades away over time and can potentially make a song seem irrelevant as a result. It’s inevitable, however, that such songs will be written, since one of the most emotional ways to respond to a tragedy is to process feelings through music.
So, a country song about the horrific event that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, a mere 7 months ago, is tasked with the delicate undertaking of striking that sensitive balance of honoring rather than exploiting. Although it seems impossible to do, Alan Jackson did it with “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” for the worst national tragedy in my lifetime. And while this may not turn out to have the same broad recognition as that untouchable musical moment, George Strait’s tribute to those who lost their lives in Newtown successfully does the same.
“I Believe” quietly displays a strong faith that expresses the solace felt by believing in a higher power that can help heal the most broken of hearts. Supported by gentle production, Strait tenderly sings of the lost “26 angels” with palpable reverence and hope. Strait’s voice is as solid as ever, including strong and mournful falsetto notes, which perfectly emotes the sincerity and compassion that a song of this magnitude requires. There are no lyrical or note-bending histrionics by Gentleman George here - just a tribute from a humble man conveying a simple sentiment of real heartbreak, buoyed by faith and hope.
Written by Dean Dillon, Bubba Strait & George Strait
Brandy Clark has many times shown that she’s one heck of a songwriter. Recently, her writing talents have been heard on respectable cuts such as Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” while her name appears all over the co-writer credits on Kacey Musgraves’ excellent Mercury Records debut Same Trailer Different Park. Now we get to hear the woman get behind the mic herself with her recently released Brandy Clark EP and her debut single and video “Stripes” – a brash up-tempo number that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Miranda Lambert album.
The song begins with a bang, opening line “You were lying in there with nothin’ on but a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde” reeling the listener in quickly. Next thing we know, the narrator is cocking a pistol, and we’re beginning to wonder if we’re in for a murder ballad.
But she stops short of doing the deed – not in a display of mercy or conscience, but because our fashion-conscious narrator bristles at the thought of having to don a prison uniform, with Clark singing “I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color, and if I squeeze that trigger tonight I’ll be wearin’ one or the other.” It’s a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme as Clark entertainingly captures the moment of catching one’s partner in the act.
Fortunately, “Stripes” doesn’t go so far as to fall into novelty territory, thanks in part to Clark’s fierce, simmering vocal rendering. The fresh, engaging David Brainard-helmed production is a delight, with a jaunty drumbeat and honky-tonk piano lending added grit and punch to the song’s tale.
As the first radio bid from an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter, “Stripes” does not disappoint. It’s an ambitious, energetic debut single that makes the prospect of a full-length Brandy Clark album (to be released later this year) even more enticing.
I haven’t heard a country song spin such a fantastical yet somehow believable yarn about circus folk since Kathy Mattea’s “Harley”, a fan favorite album cut from her 1991 set, Time Passes By.
Don Henry wrote that tune, and he’s a co-writer of this latest single by Miranda Lambert as well. “All Kinds of Kinds” is actually headed to country radio, giving this new tale the opportunity for a wider audience than that little-known gem from two decades ago.
For some strange reason, it takes Lambert a while to get around to releasing the best songs from her albums to radio. I’d argue that this coming on the heels of “Mama’s Broken Heart” makes this her best one-two punch since “Gunpowder & Lead” and “More Like Her.”
“All Kinds of Kinds” could have easily made its appeal for tolerance and against bigotry be populated with cardboard characters, but the writers take the wiser tack of creating complex and not necessarily likable folks to celebrate, trusting the listeners to be charmed by them anyway.
And how couldn’t we be, when Lambert sings with smirky, smiley non-judgment, aware of the absurdity of her subjects but enamored by their essential humanity.
Then again, maybe she’s just having fun singing about circus folks and a senator with secrets hanging in his closet.