Our take on a batch of summer singles from Nikki Lane, Cole Swindell, Banditos, Sunny Sweeney, Carly Pearce, and Roberta Lea.
Written by Gabe Simon and Nikki Lane
ZK: Nikki Lane returns, and it’s like she never left. This has the same unbridled, rock-influenced energy that’s always suited her fairly well.
But for a song about youthful nostalgia, this feels a bit by-the-numbers, and I’m not wild about buried she sounds in the mix here. Still, it’s pretty cool to see Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme here on production. After all, if you’re going to go for anthemic heartland rock (Bruce Springsteen is, of course, mentioned here), might as well have a good bass groove and driving electric axes to drive it all home. A decent first step, but I’m hoping for more from the eventual album. B-
KJC: Nikki Lane sounds like Fiona Apple trying to sound like Sheryl Crow. It just doesn’t work at all for me. Competent and professionally done, but that’s about it. C.
JK: I’m very intrigued by the pairing of Josh Homme with Nikki Lane: It’s Homme’s production here that does all of the heavy lifting, and I appreciate how he foregrounds Lane’s performance in the mix. It’s actually a departure from most of the QotSA’s mixing, and it shows that he’s aware of what Lane can do. And she does her best to sell “First High” with aplomb. But, as Zack said, the song itself is just rote. There’s nothing in the details here that transcends the formulaic tropes, whereas Lane’s unique POV typically shines in her writing as much as in her performances. B-
“She Had Me at Heads Carolina”
Written by Tim Nichols and Mark D. Sanders; Jesse Frasure, Ashley Gorley, and Cole Swindell
KJC: “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” essentially rewrites “Heads Carolina, Tails California” in the most meta way. It tells the story of a guy falling in love with a girl Karaoke singing the Jo Dee Messina classic, and it does it to the melody of the original hit.
This is a new trend in music that I’m really enjoying. I loved Restless Road and Kane Brown’s “Take Me Home,” which reimagined “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and outside the country universe, I can’t stop playing Madonna and Sickick’s “Frozen On Fire,” which reimagines “Frozen” as a dark duet between doomed lovers.
Let’s face it: country radio would improve exponentially if these newer artists had to operate within the structure and boundaries of nineties country songs. Swindell is successful here, but I think it’s held back by not sampling the original record. Jo Dee Messina gave her blessing, but we really needed her vocal here. B
JK: This is the sound of every stopped clock in the world saying, “See? We told you so.” That’s not to say that this single gets everything right, but it’s clearly a career-best effort for Swindell, who’s never before released anything that, generously, I’d rate higher than a D. But credit where it’s due: This is one of the better singles in recent memory that is sure to be a multi-week #1, and the use of the actual “Heads Carolina, Tails California” melody highlights how amelodic so much of modern country has become. B
ZK: I’m not sure how Cole Swindell, of all people, is one of the few artists to get this recent “song about songs” trend right. Granted, one could also argue the credit goes to its source material – and to be clear, it absolutely does – but rather than just resort to a cheap reference (as these songs tend to do), Swindell interpolates its melody and actually frames it as a meet-cute karaoke contest.
And I’ll give him this: Swindell may have his technical limitations as a singer, but he’s always had charisma, and this is just so charming and fun all the way through. I even like the detail about both parties not needing the lyrics displayed during their performance, because they know the iconic song by heart – as does, like, everybody.
Again, though, it works mainly because of that iconic melody, so I could very well argue it’s cheating … but hell, like Kevin says, if it means bringing a stronger ’90s influence back to radio, it’s hardly a bad thing. B.
Written by Banditos
JK: A triumph of humanism, “Here Tonight” is told from the perspective of a bartender at a desolate honky-tonk populated by aging outcasts who are searching for moments of ephemeral joy or clarity in unlikely company. Banditos, who’ve been kicking around for about a decade and should have a far bigger following to show for it than they do, meet the moment they’ve created: The band’s arrangement foregrounds disparate instruments– including banjo, guiro, toy piano, and saxophone– into a husky, rough-and-tumble Southern Rock barnburner. “Here Tonight” is catchy as hell and even a bit whimsical. As always, frontwoman Mary Beth Richardson turns in a scorching performance that empathizes with each of the characters she’s interacting with, before letting loose with a rafters-shaking wail in the chorus. She’s a brilliant singer, and fans of Alabama Shakes, Drive-By Truckers, and Tami Neilson are overdue to take notice of Richardson and her rowdy crew. A
ZK: I admit, I wasn’t much of a fan of this band during their Bloodshot Records days, so I’m pleasantly surprised that, for one, they’re now collectively based around Mary Beth Richardson’s lead vocal, and that I actually quite enjoy this. I’m not really wild about how buzzy the saxophone come across in the mix, nor am I really sure the proper response to these patrons’ woes is, “Life is a drag and then you die.”
But hey, there’s some slight truth to it. And considering the bar isn’t the place one will ever solve their problems, might as well turn this track into a barn-burner and commiserate with souls who might understand that pain. I agree that Richardson does the bulk of the heavy lifting here, enough so that I just may have to check out the album that dropped in May. B
KJC: This might be my favorite bar song since “The Night’s Too Long.” Interesting characters living mundane lives, but finding faith and humanity in each other. The arrangement is fantastic, and Richardson’s vocal sticks to the track like spilled beer on an old bartop. Pencil this one in for my year-end list. A
“A Song Can’t Fix Everything”
Sunny Sweeney featuring Paul Cauthen
Written by Lori McKenna and Sunny Sweeney
ZK: Sunny Sweeney returns with a track that rips away the veneer of what music will actually do us for in times of strife. It won’t physically heal us, and it’s not a real person that will comfort us; if anything, any dopamine rush we feel is just that – something temporary to provide an escapism so desperately needed … even if our real world problems and demons will wait for us after it’s over. We empathize and sympathize with characters in song constantly, but it’s also revealing of how much it says about us in the ones we gravitate toward. I mean, leave it to writers like Sweeney and Lori McKenna to just cut right to the bone like that.
Now, full disclosure: I actually really want to like this just a bit more than I do. For as excellent as the content itself is, this is a track that basically drowns itself in its atmosphere from the overextensive use of reverb, when the natural flair is right there in the firm acoustics and pedal steel to cut regardless. I’ve always been able to take or leave Paul Cauthen, but he feels unnecessary here as a whole, especially when there’s a sub-narrative present here where Sunny uses music to heal a heartache and note the distance felt from a partner, making it all the weirder to have this be a collaborative effort anyway. Still excellent as a whole, though; Sweeney has been sorely missed. A-
KJC: I will always be on board with a great song about songs. This is one of the best songs that Sweeney has ever written and recorded, so I’m surprised that her delivery of it is so halting and reserved. It’s like the musical track and the vocal don’t quite match up. I’d love to hear this song done again with a stronger arrangement, and as Jonathan notes below, a better duet partner. B
JK: I’d prepared an entire blurb in my head for this entry before I realized we were writing about this duet with Cauthen rather than Sweeney’s duet with Jim Lauderdale, “Storms Never Last.” While I prefer the way Sweeney’s and Lauderdale’s vocal timbres compliment each other– Cauthen’s voice is, at best, an acquired taste– I do think this is the better-written of the two songs by a pretty big margin. McKenna’s gifts for this exact type of emotional beat have been widely celebrated, but Sweeney’s gifts for melancholy and disaffect have too often flown under the radar outside of the Very Online contingent of country music writers. They’re an ideal songwriting team, in other words, and this is a song that feels like it’s in a Crucial Conversation with “The Song Remembers When.” And Paul Cauthen just keeps interjecting into that conversation, and maybe this should’ve been a duet with McKenna herself? B+
“What He Didn’t Do”
Written by Ashley Gorley, Carly Pearce, and Emily Shackleton
KJC: The songwriting on 29: Written in Stone is so top notch that Pearce’s limitations as a vocalist don’t get in the way of this incisive record. Her setup is a bluff: she’s pretending she isn’t going to talk about what he did wrong, because there are two sides to every story, but then she tells what he didn’t do…which is what he did wrong. So she’s spilling tea, but its bitter taste is delicious. B+
JK: A run of frankly disastrous live performances have laid bare that Pearce is largely a studio creation. To which I say, praise the 6 lb 8 oz Baby Jesus for the trickery of the modern recording studio. Because “What He Didn’t Do” is a masterclass of misdirection, and Pearce sells it with a mix of bitterness over what sounds like a genuinely terrible relationship and just a twinge of self-satisfaction for airing her ex’s dirty laundry in such a memorable way. She can’t compete with them vocally, but this song demonstrates that Pearce learned a lot of the right lessons from the women of the 90s she so often cites as influences. A-
ZK: God, her single choices have been near-perfect for this era, and this cuts just as deep as anything on her last album. Although, as Kevin noted, the real selling point is in the twist of that hook.
And considering her influences, I can safely say, without qualifiers, that this is type of well-written, cut-to-the-bone, defiantly country song that would have stood alongside something like Patty Loveless’ “You Can Feel Bad” 30 years ago. A-
“Too Much of a Woman”
Written by Roberta Lea
JK: At the Black Opry Revue this Spring, Roberta Lea got the night’s biggest response– not counting 12 year-old yodeling wünderkind Phoebe White– for her sneak preview of this single, and it’s easy to hear why. The construction is just flawless: The melody and arrangement set her up to deliver the song’s hook at the end of the chorus, and that hook is an indelible kiss-off. Lea has described this song as, “a diss track for misogyny,” and I don’t know that I can improve on that. But I’ll say that, in a world where black women actually had the financial backing to get a single played on country radio, “Too Much of a Woman” sure sounds like a massive hit waiting to happen. If, say, problematic Gabby Barrett were to cover this exactly as-is, it would rocket to number one. Lea’s a far better singer than many of her contemporaries on radio, though, and it’s hard to imagine anyone improving on her delivery of this declaration of self-worth. I’d love to hear this with an even more fleshed-out studio recording, but Lea has the talent that even this acoustic version packs a wallop. A-
ZK: I’m usually not one for acoustic versions of songs, but how fitting that a song with minimal backing still carries so much incendiary firepower in that hook and performance needed to soar regardless. I’ll have to disagree with Jonathan that it would fly at radio with anyone recording it – likely due to the fact that the female character here has actual agency and the industry typically has a problem with that. But it’s cut from the same cloth as country music’s best kiss-off tracks. I’d love to hear a fleshed-out recording as well, but this works just fine for now. A-
KJC: I love contrasts. Presenting “too much of a woman” against “too little of a production” heightens the impact of the already stunning lyricism that is on display here. I also like how the conceit of the song is a modern twist on “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” with the woman’s value properly centered this time around. Roberta Lea is a strong vocalist who deserves some more attention. A