Miko Marks and Tami Neilson earn the highest marks in our latest roundup of new singles.
Written by Kelsea Ballerini, Karen Fairchild, and Alysa Vanderheym
KJC: The lasting impact Taylor Swift has made on country music is becoming increasingly evident. “HEARTFIRST” feels like a Speak Now outtake, with the pop elements intertwined with a standard early 2010s contemporary country arrangement.
Of course, to make a great Taylor Swift record, you need her unique attention for detail as a songwriter. The lyrics here are vague and uninteresting, so the song doesn’t really go anywhere.
It’s still a step up from Ballerini’s usual work, with a cleaner production and a stronger vocal performance than we usually get. Baby steps. B-
JK: I quite happily went to bat for Ballerini’s “Hole in the Bottle”– the rootsy ballerini version, in particular, though the OG was also terrific– and was eager to hear where her next era would go. I was hoping for far more substantive songwriting and more thoughtful vocal phrasing than what’s here. “HEARTFIRST” is a perfectly competent pop single. More than anything else, this reminds me of both of Stacie Orrico’s hits in terms of its aesthetic but, even moreso, for being super catchy but not having one single distinctive detail in the lyrics or performance. There’s gotta be more to life than chasing down this temporary high, Kelsea. C+
ZK: I’m a bigger fan of Kelsea Ballerini’s pop-country style than I am some of her more overpraised contemporaries, and I’m usually not one to say, “This doesn’t belong in the format.” But this is one OLAY commercial away from finding its true home.
With that said, for what this is – a lightweight, breezy pop song – this is a very enjoyable sugar rush. The melody is bouncy and the hook is memorable, and while the details are vague – as Kevin noted – the general conceit is solid, finding Ballerini’s character jumping into a short-term fling knowing it won’t last and that she could get hurt, but wanting that rush regardless for now, especially when there’s that tiny chance it could lead to something more. I could have done without the polished vocal production, but a fan overall. B
“Feel Like Going Home”
Miko Marks and the Resurrectors
Written by Miko Marks, Justin Phipps, and Steve Wyreman
JK: Miko Marks is making up for the time in the limelight that was denied her. She put out two of the finest albums of 2021, and she’s already back with the lead single from a new project for 2022. And “Feel Like Going Home” is a departure from the brilliant Our Country and Race Records EP, in that it highlights a different texture of Marks’ extraordinary voice. This single is a slice of vintage Southern Soul, and Marks leans into the raspiest edges of her timbre as she belts and testifies over a stirring gospel choir and blistering arrangement from her ace backing band, The Resurrectors. She recorded some of the finest country music of the last year, and she’s never sounded better or more free than she does here. A
ZK: Cueing this up first thing in the morning got my day started right. “Soulful” is going to sound like such a cliché way to describe it – it’s almost like it just awakens something primal within you that can’t be properly described. It’s one of those songs you just feel.
OK, I can see I delved into clichés anyway. Whatever; this is awesome and you should hear it. A
KJC: “Feel Like Going Home” seamlessly weaves country, soul, and gospel into one delightful record, tapping into the same vein that made Charlie Rich and Ronnie Milsap genre superstars decades ago. Marks is one of the strongest vocalists out there today, so she unsurprisingly nails her performance. A
“Fall Apart World”
Written by Mary Gauthier and Ben Glover
ZK: Pandemic-themed songs have been very hit-or-miss over the past two years, but there’s just something so generally warm about “Fall Apart World” (and the other pre-release single, “Amsterdam”, is arguably even better). It’s the sort of plainspoken, lived-in sentiment that’s actually timeless: placing all of one’s faith in a partner and being rewarded for it and having someone to lean on in a crazy, wack-ass world. Truthfully, Gauthier’s flow isn’t always so smooth here, but this is just a generally likable first start to her upcoming album. B
KJC: Gauthier is a strikingly intimate songwriter, which makes her stand out even among her folksy peers. The singer-songwriter style of “the demo is the recording” is usually good at making a song feel intimate even when the lyrics aren’t any different from what you’d hear on a mainstream pop song. Gauthier’s “Fall Apart World” could be rearranged as a radio hit without shedding any of its intimacy because it’s there in the lyrics. B+
JK: I’m with Zack in finding “Amsterdam” to be the superior offering of Gauthier’s two new singles and in still liking this pretty well. This is maybe the countriest-sounding thing I can recall hearing from Gauthier, who usually hangs out at the folksinger table under our “big tent” approach to the genre, and it suits her just fine. I always love how unadorned her songs are: She’s a songwriter of uncommon precision. “You’re my girl / In this broken fall-apart world,” is such a clear sentiment, and Gauthier knows not to try to gussy it up. B
Little Big Town
Written by Cory Crowder, Tyler Hubbard, Phillip Sweet, and Jimi Westbrook
KJC: This is Little Big Town’s strongest effort in years. It fully delivers on all of their best qualities as a vocal group, with an understated groove that belies the intensity of the emotional content.
How nobody thought of this before – “I’m still here in hell, yeah” – is a mystery to me. They know they’ve struck gold, so they don’t go overboard with the production or lean too heavily on their layered harmonies. By holding back, they’ve rarely sounded better. A
JK: I found the whistling in the opening bars to be immediately off-putting: They’ve gone to that exact well before, and it’s an odd affectation that I don’t think entirely works for this song. I get that they were trying to create an ironic remove between the cheerfulness of the whistles and the “I’m still here in Hell, yeah,” hook, and I can appreciate that attempt, but I don’t think it’s a successful one. Otherwise, I do find this far more successful in terms of its production choices– and, honestly, in terms of the quality of the songwriting– than anything they’ve released since 2014, excepting “Better Man.” Phil might be singing about being stuck in Hell, but I’m just thrilled that he and the rest of the crew aren’t still stuck at the bottom of the cave where they’d recorded their last three dreadful albums. Hopefully, this is a harbinger of material that’s even more of a return to form. B
ZK: I was the only one here to champion 2020’s Nightfall, so I should be an easy sell for where this band goes next. And to be fair, leading with Phillip Sweet over Karen Fairchild this time around at least provides a different perspective for a band that’s basically built around her voice over the past half decade or so. Sweet is an impressive vocalist in his own right, so I’m certainly for it. It’s just that he’s forced to be on autopilot here for a song that’s painfully tepid.
The thing is, there’s a decent conceit here overall, even if the play on words with the hook really isn’t really as creative as it should be (all this does is add an unneeded “yeah” to the end of various phrases in the chorus). Our protagonist tries to be the life of the party in order to mask his deeper pain of a breakup, but between the chipper whistles, stick and snap percussion, and generally slick instrumentation, this feels less like an attempt to keep in upbeat spirits and more just way too entirely disconnected and relaxed to care at all. If it’s bland and forgettable enough to do well at radio, so be it – I just hope it means the band gains back some leverage to release something better. C
“12th of June”
Written by Lyle Lovett
JK: What’s most striking to me about “12th of June” is the vulnerability of it. Lovett’s songwriting is typically so arch or self-deprecating or heady, and the song immediately lays bare how fatherhood has changed him. As with the Gauthier song above, the simplicity of the sentiment bears all the weight it needs to: “Know of all the days I loved / I loved best the 12th of June.” A-
ZK: The recently released comeback album of the same name is a weird little disappointment, but its title track is easily among Lovett’s best. I agree with Jonathan’s comparison to the Mary Gauthier track above. The emotional simplicity of the sentiment cuts through, even for those who haven’t experienced the joys of parenthood. Tender and grounded without being twee, it’s just a beautiful testament to where Lovett is at now. A
KJC: Lovett’s idiosyncratic phrasing as both a singer and a songwriter has a way of layering irony atop his performances, even when that’s not his intent. It’s fascinating to me that writing something so personal about becoming a father has removed that layer. This is as vulnerable as I’ve ever heard him. Perhaps it’s harder to keep a standoffish distance from the world you’re observing once you’ve been entrusted to help your children navigate it. B+
“Beyond the Stars”
Tami Neilson with Willie Nelson
Written by Delaney Davidson and Tami Neilson
ZK: This is the right way to launch a lead single for an album: Tami Neilson, Willie Nelson and his guitar, and a lush arrangement that sounds like a long-lost ‘60s country classic that never was – damn, talk about stacking the deck here. Granted, “Beyond the Stars” hits in closer proximity to Neilson’s Don’t Be Afraid album – an examination of grief that may not carry the darker stakes that characterized that album, but still has the emotional weight to show how the pain still lingers.
The general conceit is that Nelson plays the role of Neilson’s late father and offers a counterbalance to her, and while I won’t say the two blend together exceptionally well – mostly just due to their vocal strengths residing in completely different areas – I like the subtle echo added to Nelson’s delivery to hammer in that feeling of him singing from afar to accentuate the role. But, let’s be honest: Neilson is truly the show-stopper here. She’s a singer who could easily outmatch most other singers on pure presence alone, but dials things back here to test her emotional range and anchor in how that grief may not manifest itself in soul-crushing ways like before, but nonetheless lingers and haunts her every now and then. A
KJC: Tami Neilson’s name on a record is a seal of quality that you can rely on, a throwback to the days when you couldn’t sample an album before you bought it and you had to depend on the artist’s reputation before parting with your hard-earned money.
I lost my father many, many years ago and that experience sharpened my criticism of songs that deal with grief and loss. It’s quite hard to capture in song what grief really feels like. “Beyond the Stars” is in the same league as Cheryl Wheeler’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” and Iris DeMent’s “No Time to Cry,” which is the highest praise I’ve got to give. A
JK: God, this is just exquisite. Neilson has mined some truly extraordinary songs from her grief over her late father, and what’s perhaps most impressive is the emotional range of those songs. This is a wistful vision of grief, and the lilting minor-key arrangement– and Nelson’s weathered vocal turn– is so perfectly suited to the song itself and is such a perfect foil to Neilson’s peerless clarity and control. Tami just doesn’t miss. Between this, “Trouble Finds a Girl,” which we covered already, and the new “Baby, You’re A Gun,” she’s attached to three of 2022’s best singles, and the year isn’t even half over yet. A