The Country Universe staff reviews the latest efforts from Jimmie Allen, Jenny Mitchell (with Tami Neilson), Catie Offerman, Jon Pardi, SACHA, and Carrie Underwood.
“Happyland Trailer Park”
Written by Rodney Clawson, Joe Clemens, and Catie Offerman
ZK: We’re still in a ’90s country renaissance age, but I’m starting to notice more than a few acts try and revive that 2000s sound, as well. And as someone who grew up more with that, I get what Kevin said about feeling his age, but I’m happy to see it as a nice companion sound.
Now, as for this particular song, while I’m not wild about the “yeps” after the hook or how Catie Offerman’s voice gets a bit buried in the mix on the chorus, this is just an infectious jam pretty much from start to finish. I’m not even that into the main setting of Happyland Trailer Park, but I like that the main conceit is centered more hoping everyone finds their own version of a happy place to call home, wherever it falls on a map. As the song suggests, it may not even be a physical setting; it could be about finding happiness in a hobby, or through someone else, or just needing to let go. It’s the first song two in this roundup I’d describe as a nice shot of euphoria. B.
KJC: This record makes me feel my age. I was already in my thirties when Kacey Musgraves broke out, and now the legacy and influence of her early work is already surfacing in new mainstream artists.
Catie Offerman taps into that same feeling of joyous inclusion found in “Biscuits” and “Follow Your Arrow,” and I dare say she does even better with the trailer park metaphor than Musgraves did on “Merry Go ‘Round.”
None of this is meant to suggest that Offerman is a derivative artist without her own identity. Quite the contrary. The muscular production surrounding her would overwhelm a vocalist with less grit in their performance, but Offerman remains in the driver seat the entire time.
I love the idea of finding your joy being “pulling in to Happyland Trailer Park.” What’s the point of country music if it can’t find beautiful new ways of describing timeless desires? B+
JK: I’m giving at least a little bit of side-eye to the title of this– it’s a degree or two too twee for its own good, to the detriment of a song that, otherwise, hits just where it was aiming. The details in “Happyland” are delightful and thoughtfully chosen, and the message lands because of Offerman’s sincerity. And while Offerman’s influences are laid bare on her every phrase, it’s clear that she’s learned all the right lessons from her studies of Lambert, Swift, Monroe, and Musgraves, while having a distinctive voice of her own. This really is a terrific introduction to a major new talent. B+
Written by David Garcia, Hillary Lindsey ,and Josh Kear
KJC: The conceit of this record is pretty cool. I like the use of ghost story tropes being applied to a haunting memory. Unfortunately, all of the worst traits of the Cry Pretty project are still rattling around: loud production that still sounds tinny and anemic, alongside oversinging that is painful to listen to.
She gets it right toward the end of the song, where she largely whispers the chorus, which aligns better with the lyric anyway. But for most of the song, she’s screeching more than singing, despite there being such a limited note range in the melody.
I don’t know what’s going on with the best technical singer to surface in country music since Trisha Yearwood, but it’s just not good. C
JK: In American English, words are pronounced such that the stressed or emphasized syllable, by conventions of language, elongates the stressed vowels and often voices that vowel sound at a slightly higher pitch than the vowel of the minor syllable or syllables. In rare instances, songwriters and singers may toy with those conventions to highlight a pivotal word or phrase or to reflect a specific emotional state. More often, flouting of basic linguistic convention points to an underlying sloppiness in songwriting or a lack of insight in interpretation.
The word “story,” for instance, has the emphasis on the first syllable, not the second. That the chorus of “Ghost Story” finds Underwood screeching it out as, “sto-/REE/,” simply because that’s what the writers needed to force the song’s not-especially-complicated rhyme scheme and because she’s rarely been a strong enough interpreter of material to make better choices to overcome those exact kinds of liabilities, is just ungodly grating.
It’s the one thing that drives me the most mad about a single that has a whole lot of things– the banal production straight off a mid-2000s K-LOVE playlist, a return of the unpleasant, reedy vocal tone from Underwood’s early career, an undercooked central metaphor that deserved a better song– that I really and truly dislike. My Savior was a career-best effort from Underwood, and this is a major regression from that project. This is the worst lead single of her career. C-.
ZK: Even beyond what my colleagues have already said, I had heard bad things about this single even before I heard it. And … it’s not as awful as I expected it to be? But it’s still not particularly good? Her vocal performance feels oddly disconnected from the lyric – not quite understated enough to really sell the pain conveyed here, and not visceral enough to put it in the same lane as some of her best.
Maybe it’s because I kept wondering why she’s going to be this particular ex-partner’s ghost story. The checklist lyrical flow and second-person point of view of the song just doesn’t establish enough of a context for the relationship sketched here.
Beyond that, while I always appreciate a more atmospheric production choice, it’s about the only thing connecting this to something grounded and distinct, because otherwise this just sounds like a hazy, by-the-numbers mainstream pop tune. C-
“Trouble Finds a Girl”
Jenny Mitchell featuring Tami Neilson
Written by Jenny Mitchell and Tami Neilson
JK: I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I saw that this single is billed as, “Featuring Tami Neilson,” in the sense that Neilson is such a singular, generational talent that it was hard to imagine her as anything but the first-billed artist. And it’s the highest praise that “Trouble Finds A Girl,” both in terms of its retro-minded production aesthetic and the ferocity of its feminist bona fides, is wholly of a piece with Neilson’s extraordinary SASSAFRASS! album.
But wow, does Jenny Mitchell shine on this record. Her husky contralto is a wonder, lending a moody and forceful gravitas to a song that impresses for the specificity of its gendered violence. To paraphrase William Blake, “Trouble Finds a Girl” is a song of experience, and Mitchell sings with the weariness of someone who’s been through and seen some shit. She trades verses with Neilson, a kindred spirit in both her perspective and her technical gifts. Their interplay functions as a private conversation between two women who are sharing their own truths.
Over the course of the song, though, their resolve builds, and what begins as a conversation transforms into a rallying cry of solidarity and empowerment. By the time Mitchell and Neilson lead a gospel choir in exultations of, “Burn it down!” they’ve more than made their case for why that’s exactly what needs to happen and why they’re the dynamic voices to lead the charge. A.
ZK: Like Jonathan, I was skeptical of any artist sharing the spotlight with Tami Neilson and I was even more skeptical at first to hear both acts opt for restraint here. But that’s kind of the beauty here – proving that fantastic vocalists don’t need to belt to get their messages across, instead letting the natural rage simmer through tone. It’s definitely a slow-burn, but that’s a great parallel to the song’s theme of gendered violence that’s gone on for far too long, especially within the small town context here.
Most duets I hear today feel completely unnecessary, but this really does feel like two friends conspiring to put their truth to power. Burn it down, indeed. A.
KJC: Devastating. In a perfect world, this would cut through the toxic culture of our society the way these two voices cut straight through to the heart. But that lonesome sadness in their voices is a reminder of just how low the odds are of that happening. A
“Last Night Lonely”
Written by Jimi Bell, Joe Fox, and Dylan Marlowe
ZK: Right away I’ll say that the biggest hindrance to any Jon Pardi record is Pardi himself, namely in that he’s nasal and has never been one for subtlety, which doesn’t help on a song trying to plan forever in one night. He’s still a likable presence and doesn’t come across as leering as his most of his contemporaries would on this hookup track; at his worst, he’s harmless. And these days, I certainly appreciate a more organic mix dominating a mainstream country single, especially when there’s a good fiddle pick-up to support the closest thing to a melody this thing carries.
But that’s also me slyly complimenting a song on what it doesn’t do, because if I had to get right down to what makes this a distinctive winner … well, I’m at a loss for words – especially compared to past lead singles of his like “Head Over Boots” or “Heartache Medication” that carried more punch. Decent radio filler, but little more than that. B-
KJC: Jon Pardi is one of those artists I want to enthusiastically support for his centering of traditional country elements. But gosh, he comes off like store brand David Ball, doesn’t he?
There’s very little substance to this song, which is intended to be an uptempo radio single kicking off a new album cycle. Hopefully there is better material waiting on that album because this feels like a big creative step backward for a promising young artists who appeared to be hitting his stride. C
JK: Kevin, how am I supposed to follow “store brand David Ball”?
When he debuted, Pardi was an anomaly within mainstream country based upon his strong traditionalist bent. Now? The pendulum has swung at least a slightly back in a traditional direction, and there are plenty of other artists who are releasing music a whole lot better than “Last Night Lonely.” I’m thinking specifically of Midland’s “Mr. Lonely,” which was just a hell of a lot more clever and a hell of a lot more fun than this, or anything from Carly Pearce’s 29: Written In Stone. Pardi needs to step his game up by several orders of magnitude. C-.
Written by Jimmie Allen, Rian Ball, Cameron Bedell, and Tate Howell
KJC: This is easily the best thing that Jimmie Allen has done so far. I love how upbeat he keeps his conversation with his father who has passed on, as he expresses full confidence that every update he’s sharing from “down home” his dad is already fully aware of.
It’s a joyous record that could’ve just as easily been a somber one, and I think that he made the right choice between the two. I also appreciate the record having so many country elements, even if some of that 21st century ambient noise is still there in the background.
Jimmie Allen is stepping up his game and he’s gotten my attention. I hope that he builds further upon what makes this record work so well. B+
JK: Allen’s insistence that his current Grammy nomination for Best New Artist means that the country music industry isn’t racist, along with his repeated efforts to apologize on behalf of Morgan Wallen, have been troubling. At minimum, it demonstrates Allen’s refusal to bite the proverbial hand.
A record like “Down Home” reaffirms that position. It’s straight down the middle of what’s currently popular at country radio, taking no real risks or challenging a single convention, and having no real identity of its own. It’s a fine example of current radio fodder. As Kevin noted, I like that the tone is celebratory rather than somber, and I appreciate that the writing is at least personal, if still indistinct from what countless other men are doing at this exact juncture.
Allen has a terrific voice. Hopefully, he decides to use that voice to create music that’s more singular in its point of view. Right now, “Down Home” suggests he’s content to be the next Chris Young: Someone happy to waste a superlative singing voice on whatever trend Music Row is chasing. B.
ZK: I’ve been waiting for Jimmie Allen to deliver on the promise of his debut single, and this doesn’t really get there. As my colleagues note, he’s got the vocal talent; the material has just been utterly lacking in any distinctive personality or flavor And none of you know how much I hate admitting that HARDY, of all acts, has a similar song at radio right now in “Give Heaven Some Hell” that I think nails this theme better. Allen’s cadence feels rushed – especially on the chorus – which feels odd for a song personally aimed at his late father.
Between that lack of subtlety and bland production that carries all of Music Row’s worst tendencies these days, this just feels so utterly plastic. I do appreciate some of the more personal details and connections, but they feel more like something you get here and there, rather than throughout the entire song. I, too, appreciate the more celebratory tone that’s come to loosely define Allen’s work, but this is another single I’m going to brand as decent radio filler. B-
Written by Brad Rempel and Ben Stennis
JK: This sounds exactly like a Jo Dee Messina single. The production recalls the crisp, spit-polished pop-country of the turn-of-the-century in all of the best ways. The lyrics boast a playfulness– the slant rhyme of “perfume” with “curfew” is a great surprise– that is well-matched to a narrative of young love. And SACHA’s performance is ingratiating for its enthusiasm and pluck. Her timbre even sounds like Messina’s, and she, too, makes up for a limited vocal range with a clear, assured tone.
In another era, something like “We Did” might not stand as a pleasant surprise. Today? It would be a welcome addition to radio playlists. And it’s worth noting that SACHA has an even better single than this one on deck with “If I Wanted Wine.” B.
ZK: Oh my God, it does sound like a Jo Dee Messina single. Granted, SACHA’s terrific grasp of lyrical flow matched against a single with more atmospheric swell backing its groove gives this enough distinctive detail to call that comparison an influence rather than a direct imitation. Compared to the Carrie Underwood single from earlier, this feels like the right away to go for atmospheric haze in trying to mine nostalgia for an old flame that still burns.
It’s the urgency and generally upbeat fondness that I just absolutely adore about this, where it does everything to mine the euphoria of the “love at first sight” conceit and show how it was merely the first step of something more. Well, that and the fact that it’s absolutely infectious. I can always count on at least one great recommendation new to me through this feature, and this time it’s SACHA. A-
KJC: First, let me echo all of the Jo Dee Messina love. It’s nice to hear her influence on a new country artist, and she lives up to her spiritual predecessor far better than some of those other new ladies who keep name-dropping Trisha Yearwood as they stumble for a key in the dark.
I didn’t listen to it on the car radio, but I turned it up as if I had. A winning little pop country number that could be the start of many good things to come from her. B+