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.
Looking at recent single releases “Red Solo Cup,” “Beers Ago,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” and “Hope On the Rocks,” it would appear that Toby Keith is definitely in the zone for drinking songs right now. His chart success, however, has not been quite so consistent lately. He scored the first double-platinum hit of his career with the ubiquitous sing-along and viral video hit “Red Solo Cup” only to miss the Top 15 with both of the singles from last year’s Hope On the Rocks album.
The first single from Keith’s upcoming seventeenth studio album doesn’t exactly sound like another career hit for the two-time ACM Entertainer of the Year, who now seems to have reached the back side of his commercial peak. But it what it does sound like is a tasteful, competent, not overly self-serious chill-out jam that will no doubt hit the spot at the end of a long, hard work day.
Today’s country radio is hardly short on feel-good fare, but it’s not always as solidly produced as “Drinks After Work,” which is smartly held together by a catchy guitar hook and some sweet mandolin picking. Better yet, “Drinks After Work” actually manages to convey why its narrator seeks the respite of a few good beers as he mutters about his, “long day, no break,” straining to be optimistic in noting that “We made it to the middle of the week.” Keith’s delivery makes the narrator sound every bit as fried as the lyrics suggest. Bonus points to the writers for steering clear of goofy Blake Shelton-esque pick-up lines as the narrator casually and unpretentiously invites a lady friend to join him for his night on the town.
It certainly doesn’t hurt the proceedings that we have one of contemporary country music’s strongest male vocalists behind the mic, or that the writers thankfully bothered to give the song a melody with a little life to it. The only major knock against the song is that it lacks a strong lyrical hook. “It’s just drinks after work” is a bit on the shallow side as a listener payoff. But even when allowing for that deficiency, there are still many far less enjoyable drinking tunes currently populating country radio.
It sure is good to hear a drinking song with a little heart and character to it, and if it re-gains a little commercial steam for Toby Keith, then all the better. Bottoms up!
Written by Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, and Luke Laird
While her pop-punk band remains on indefinite hiatus, former Hey Monday frontwoman Cassadee Pope attempts to re-start her career through the reality show strategy, having now been packaged into a country music star with a little help from The Voice. Her debut country single “Wasting All These Tears” is weighed down by problems that tend to be common among former reality show contestants, foremost among which is a failure to stay out of the way of the song.
In listening to “Wasting All These Tears,” it’s disheartening to note just how irrelevant the actual song feels to the overall project. Her performance feels extremely disconnected as she hits the notes prettily, but with little personal flair or sense of first-person authenticity. As a listener, one doesn’t get the sense that she has any real emotional investment in the song. As she forgoes subtlety and nuance in favor of empty belting, it becomes all too clear that this is all about the singer.
Besides the song itself being treated as a mere accessory, there’s too much clutter in the mix for “Wasting All These Tears” to work on any meaningful level as a vocal showcase. Screeching electric guitars and murky background vocals place needless barriers between Pope and her listeners, making it difficult to even understand the words she is singing.
Unfortunately, a closer look at the lyrics shows a song riddled with odd unclear metaphors (“My loneliness was a rattle in the windows”) and trite phrases (“I’ll do everything I gotta do to get you off my mind”). The didactic, heavy-handed treatment all but kills off whatever potency the song might otherwise have carried.
Would you expect anything less from a collaboration between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, especially one that has them officially being billed as Grits & Glamour?
Much like both ladies were known for doing in their chart-topping days, “I Know What You Did Last Night” weds traditional country structures with the contemporary female experience. It’s one of those classic conversational duets, with both singers alternating lines and talking as much as singing at certain points. They don’t quite break the fourth wall, but they push up against it, much like Loretta & Conway and Porter & Dolly would do on their album cuts.
But the girls night out spirit is completely modern, without even a hint of apology for their rowdiness. If anything, it’s a friendly competition for who did the most partying down, with the details grounded enough in reality that it never becomes a caricature.
Pam and Lorrie toured together for a bit in the nineties, but they’ve been pairing up regularly for a couple of years now, and that helps the collaboration feel natural, not forced. Grits & Glamour, the tour moniker, has taken on a sound that has elements of both artists but is uniquely its own. They have more than a few classic recordings between them, with Tillis being especially strong as an albums artist, but I don’t remember either of them having so much pure fun on a studio recording.
In a year that has seen some incredible collaborations already, it looks like Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan are still quite capable of hanging in the big leagues. I cannot wait to hear the rest of their album.
Keith Urban launches his upcoming new album Fuse with a little ditty called “Little Bit of Everything,” written by The Warren Brothers with pop singer-songwriter Kevin Rudolf.
The energetic performance and the singalong-friendly melody contain traces of the organic quality that has marked Urban’s best songs in this vein. Frustratingly, the effect is dampened by an annoying drum machine and a lack of a strong hook (a deficiency for which the “na na na”s don’t quite compensate).
The bigger problem is a set of sloppy lyrics that mindlessly stumble about with no discernible point. Between Urban singing about wanting to “hang a disco ball from an old oak tree” one moment and then wanting to “take a whole box of Cuban cigars and smoke ‘em nice and slow like they were good for me,” it’s hard to make sense of what’s coming out of the man’s mouth. At a time when country music’s respect for women is not at a high point, lines about wanting “a cool chick who’ll cook for me but still dance on the bar in her tan bare feet and do what I want when I want and she’ll do it with me” feels distasteful as well as unoriginal.
Is it a love song? Is it a song about enjoying the simple pleasures of life? It’s hard to tell where exactly the writers intended to go with it, but it sounds a lot more like “too much nothing” than “a little bit of everything.”
Written by Brad Warren, Brett Warren, and Kevin Rudolf
A new chapter begins in Kellie Pickler’s career as she prepares to release her first music on her new record label Black River Entertainment. She kicks things off with a true beauty of a song with the Dave Raines – Walt Wilkins ballad “Someone Somewhere Tonight.”
To call “Someone Somewhere Tonight” a love song feels like an oversimplification of sorts, even though that’s basically what it is. Far from indulging in empty schmaltz, it’s a song that captures commonality of the human experience, meditating on the endlessly repeating cycles of birth and death while contrasting the different turns life can take based on a person’s choices.
Pickler’s performance doesn’t quite possess the sense of age-earned wisdom that enriched previous versions by Kenny Rogers and Pam Tillis, but her comparatively youthful take on the song is effective in its own right. The poised, graceful lyrical interpreter who fully blossomed on last year’s 100 Proof makes a return as Pickler imbues the song with the gravitas of one who, lest we forget, has put in some hard living in only 26 years. The arrangement strikes a balance between the modern and the traditional, while allowing plenty of leeway to let the lyric and performance speak.
It’s a compelling performance of a quality song – something far too rare in the modern country format. Though richly deserving of a mainstream audience, such an astute, insightful ballad would hardly seem the usual go-to for an artist making her first radio bid on a new label, but this release would seem to confirm that Pickler’s pandering days are indeed over.
Only time will tell if the risk will pay off, and if the Black River promotional muscle will have any success in restoring Pickler to her slot at country radio. But as Pickler ventures out with a new team behind her, and doubtless some increased notoriety in the wake of her recent Dancing with the Stars victory, there may be a reason to hope that “Someone Somewhere Tonight” just might bring a little substance and sincerity back to mainstream country music.
The coolest thing “I Hope it Rains” has going for it is a piano melody that is mildly reminiscent of Bonnie Tyler’s cover of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”
As for the rest of it, Jana Kramer’s newest effort is mediocre and suffers from being not quite enough of everything it’s trying to be. It’s twangy, but not twangy enough to suggest an authentic country pedigree. It’s adolescent, but not adolescent enough to rank among even the lesser Taylor Swift “I’m done with you now wait until the next song about the next guy I’m done with” kiss-off numbers. It’s a vindictive fantasy, but nothing nearly as vindictive as what Jaron and the Long Road to Love would pray for.
All in all, Kramer would’ve been better off just covering Dolly Parton’s “I Don’t Want to Throw Rice.” She would’ve accomplished all three tasks in one fell swoop.
Written by Jerry Flowers, Kelley Lovelace, and Rachel Proctor
A song about a narrator whose woman completes him is a worthwhile concept, so long as one avoids pouring on the syrup. But in this case, the execution falls very flat.
“If you wanna see my sweet side, my soft side, my best side, I just point at you,” Moore sings in the chorus. The hook doesn’t have much heft, and is not particularly clever or interesting, but the bigger eye roll is that the song spends most of the time indulging in the tired backwoods rebel shtick on which too much of Moore’s career has already been wasted.
He’s got “a rough side, a wild side at least a country mile wide,” but so, it seems, does virtually every other twenty or thirty-something male artist on country radio. The one-dimensional lyrics make Moore seem like a caricature, and when you add a brash, over-the-top country-rock production, the single seems to exemplify all of Moore’s most irritating tendencies as a recording artist.
It’s not as obnoxious as, say, “Bait a Hook,” but it’s also devoid of the earnestness of “‘Til My Last Day.” ”Point at You” is just overly loud and entirely uninteresting.
Written by Rhett Akins, Ross Copperman, and Ben Hayslip
Hunter Hayes just scored a decently big pop hit with “Wanted”, which was initially his first big country hit. Perhaps that's why he's taking a cue from the pop market, and re-releasing his first album in an expanded edition called (Encore) this summer.
That set will include a guest appearance from Jason Mraz, so it's easy to think that musically, he might start taking his cues from the pop scene as well. But “I Want Crazy”, the lead single from the expanded set, indicates that there's no need to jump t
If anything, “I Want Crazy” is insanely derivative of Golden Road-era Keith Urban, full of ridiculously catchy banjo riffs and melodies so light and breezy they practically float away. Not surprisingly, his lyrics haven't matured much, so even this new song's charm is mostly adolescent, a fact all the more remarkable given it is co-written by Lori McKenna.
But as I've written before, he's got the chops. If he keeps his feet firmly grounded in country music and keeps developing his songwriting craft, he could develop into quite the artist. For now, we have to settle for some radio filler that's worth cranking up the volume for.
Written by Hunter Hayes, Lori McKenna and Troy Verges