More radio singles than usual on the latest roundup, where the nineties callbacks stop being polite and start getting real.
Written by Kevin Kadish and Tony Perrari
KJC: This is like a Catholic spin on the very Baptist “Worship You,” which as a lifelong Catholic myself, I find quite hilarious. It’s a loose, almost greasy record that pulsates with joy, sounding like a long lost Bob Seger record from the late seventies melded with early Sugarland.
I love a committed rhyme scheme – committed Shania Twain aficionado here – but “toeses” is a bridge too far for me. Still, it’s a fun record that I wouldn’t rush to turn off if I ever somehow found myself listening to terrestrial country radio. B
JK: I made the mistake of listening to the “R3HAB Remix” version, which features Blanco Brown, before hearing the OG version, and that remix leans into the silliness of “Soul” and of Brice’s over-the-top, mealymouthed performance in a way that works far better than the official single. Don’t get the sheets twisted, though: The remix doesn’t have me singing Holy Mother, either, but I can at least respect that it embraces the absurdity of this.
Brice can credibly sell the degree of sluttiness a song like “Soul” requires better than, say, a Brett Young or a Shay Mooney or a whatever the guy from Old Dominion’s name is, but this is just so self-consciously arch– “toeses” is, yes, a bridge too far lyrically, and Brice sings it like even he knows that– that it undercuts any attempt at sexiness. Is this supposed to be an ironic sex jam? Because there’s a reason that isn’t actually a thing. D
ZK: I’ve always respected Lee Brice’s hustle in nabbing the huge hits despite not necessarily being known as an A-lister; I just wish I liked his latest material way better.
Granted, I’ll take either “One of Them Girls” or “Memory I Don’t Mess With” over “Soul,” because, wow, this blows. It reminds me of that weird trend from about five years ago when former bro-country acts tried to play the “nice guy” card and sell their partners as gifts from the Lord almighty (think Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.”), only this can’t even maintain a consistent premise. She’s “Mozart in the sheets,” but the oily, stuttered bass line and chintzy synthetic elements – which don’t build to the sex jam groove this song seems to be trying for, mind you – are apparently there to have us believe he wants to know her as a person and values her for more than just her body. Right.
Don’t get me wrong, if this just went all in as a sex jam akin to his own “Rumor” from before, I’d have no problems. But the religious iconography coupled with weirdly minor tones and writing that toes the line between overwhelmingly corny and borderline creepy just makes for a damn mess. D
Zoe Cummins & Gabe Lee
Written by Zoe Cummins, Stefanie Joyce, and Andrew Scott Wills
JK: I’m a sucker for the exact kind of Ragtimey honky-tonk piano that opens “Common Law,” and when the pedal steel kicks in? Forget about it. There was zero chance I wouldn’t love this for the production alone, but the song itself is such an empathetic and smart glimpse into the kinds of relationships that seem to terrify mainstream country music these days that “Common Law” has insinuated itself as one of my favorite singles of the year.
It’s all about the specific choices: At the end of the first verse, Cummins sings, “You and me, honey,” before the instrumentation drops out and Lee joins her in close vocal harmony to finish the thought, “We know what we are.” This is a song about a couple who might have eschewed polite traditions, but they know each other well enough to complete each other’s sentences, and those kinds of couples deserve their own celebratory love songs, too. In that regard, Cummins and Lee have gifted them with a real winner. A
ZK: Kevin compares this perfectly down to one of those old country duets down below – the ones that featured plenty of banter and excellent chemistry between the performers, only here, sold with plenty of wry venom and social commentary that probably wouldn’t have flown back then. After all, “Stand By Your Man” this most certainly isn’t, even if both parties stay in the relationship for their own selfish desires.
It’s far from a dead relationship, but it’s certainly toxic as hell in the best way possible. And that’s the thing – both Cummins and Lee have the sort of ragged, hangdog charisma needed to sell this with a haggard charm, where they’ve beaten each other down and only stay together because divorce would run them both further into the ground in some way or another. Between sharp-witted writing from Cummins and Lee’s expressive production that turns this into a barn-burning honky-tonk cut that would have fit in well on Lee’s own Honky Tonk Hell, it’s just such a phenomenally well-balanced cut across the board. A
KJC: This has all the charm of a lost Conway & Loretta duet, retro in sound but thoroughly modern in content. She rolls the joints, he cooks the food, and they’ve done everything but I do. Might as well stick together, since if he tries to leave, her sisters will kick his ass and the judge will make him give her half of everything anyway. A
Written by Rodney Clawson, Josh Kear, and Chris Tompkins
ZK: Part of me wanted to give this the benefit of the doubt. Blake Shelton’s insistence on a ‘90s country pivot could definitely work in spirit – though he debuted in the early 2000s, early singles like “Austin” and “The Baby” showcased strong storytelling elements, which often comprised the most interesting moments of that decade over its actual sound. And he’s got the coy charm and charisma to sell that decade’s goofier moments well, too, if he wanted to go down that route.
It makes no sense, then, for this to feel as clunky and flat as it does, especially when, again, Shelton has the charisma to potentially make a goofy track like this at least seem fun. But off the slower pace and curdled electric axes that offer no sense of groove whatsoever – along with some really robotic-sounding vocal production on the chorus that makes Shelton’s performance sound forced and phoned-in – I definitely can’t see a ‘90s connection, and I definitely can’t say this is something that’s all that fun or catchy to listen through.
And for a love song trying to be cute with that hook, this certainly pales in comparison to Shelton’s own “Nobody But Me.” It’s not a complete misfire like “Come Back as a Country Boy” before it, but, like with most Shelton singles over the past decade and a half, I just find it forgettable. C
KJC: Every era of country music has a handful of acts that get endless airplay with forgettable songs. Blake Shelton claimed the mantle from Brad Paisley sometime in the early 2010s, and like Paisley before him, Shelton’s most memorable records are the bad ones. This is a clunky, uninspired mess. Yes, it would fit in fine on country radio in the nineties, but that decade had a bunch of mediocre singles with stupid wordplay, too. (Also, the video is a ripoff of Kane Brown’s “Like I Love Country Music Clip,” except with all the line dancers of color removed.) D
JK: If flop-sweat had a sound, it would sound like this desperate mess of a single. Shelton’s rarely been better than competent at any point in his career, but “No Body” finds him in what comes across as a full-on panic at the idea that he’s long past his time as country radio’s pace- and tone-setter. As Zack notes, he’s already made this song’s one joke with a whole lot more wit and verve on “Nobody But Me,” so he’s inviting comparisons to his own superior material, to say nothing of how this song is supposed to catch the tail-end of the 90s country bandwagon but has not one thing in its favor that belongs in a conversation about why 90s country was great. I rarely mind Shelton, but this almost makes me feel sorry for him. D
“Son of a Sinner”
Written by Jelly Roll, Ernest K. Smith, and David Ray Stevens
KJC: Chris Stapleton has opened up a wide door for records like this. Jamey Johnson walked so Chris Stapleton could run, really. Jelly Roll gives one of those rough around the edges performances that sounds like it’s produced by his own limitations as a vocalist, rather than as a conscious artistic choice. But it works well for this particular lyric, even if the idea of hearing more songs sung like this makes me wince. B-
JK: Based on what I knew of Jelly Roll’s material prior to this, I guess I expected “Son of a Sinner” to sound a whole lot different than it actually does. I’m never averse to a style that pulls from country, rock, and hip-hop influences, so I suppose I express this to foreground a lot more of those latter two genres’ signifiers. Instead, “Son of a Sinner” is produced like a slightly edgier version of a Luke Combs single. That’s not a negative thing, necessarily; Lord knows Combs could stand to discover an edge at this point. I just don’t think that aesthetic plays to what Jelly Roll does well, which is to use each of his songs tell a direct story about a very specific scar. I’d love to hear him and a song like this one in a setting that sounds more like, say, Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance or something by Buck 65, and for him to make further mainstream inroads with that. B
ZK: I’ll admit it – I had some low expectations, but “Son of a Sinner” is surprisingly decent. I think what surprises me is how Jelly Roll’s voice is a bit too smooth for either of his preferred genres in country and hip-hop, but what surprises me more is that this is a tempered country song carried by firm acoustics and very light percussion. For a track aiming for serious intimacy and confessional vulnerability in its execution, it’s certainly got the bones to stick the landing.
But the writing is mostly surface level in its exploration of his character’s past vices, even if I do like that the bigger focus is on moving away from destructive tendencies and trying to build something sustainable for himself. All around solid, then; I still think the writing could have pushed a little harder, though. B
Written by Luke Dick, Natalie Hemby, and Miranda Lambert
ZK: This one perplexes me. On one hand, it’s a checklist-driven song that tries to capture *most* of the weight of the past few years, and Miranda Lambert’s imagery is certainly detailed enough to keep this from feeling anonymous …
… But, like, this is Miranda Lambert, so I expect more than hazy, vague statements offered aimlessly. And I expect her answer to all of these events to amount to more than just, “Have a smoke, buy a round.” This is some mid-2000s Kenny Chesney level of nonchalant existentialism, y’all.
(Also, why does that opening riff remind me way too much of Nirvana’s “Polly”?). B-
JK: The listlessness of this, uh, list works much better in the overall context of Palomino than perhaps it does as a standalone single, but “Strange” is only a disappointment when grading Lambert on the curve she already broke for all of her peers. It’s no “Kerosene” or “Vice,” sure, but it’s a sight better than the thematically similar “Automatic” or “Bluebird.”
So much of modern country, for years now, has reveled in escapism without ever giving much context for what, exactly, its socially privileged artists are hoping to escape from. Here, Lambert gives some specific examples– “A Lincoln came, and a Jefferson went,” is a tremendous image for capturing economic anxiety, while, “Country don’t twang / Rock and roll ain’t loud,” is the most pointed, biting-the-hand dig at radio since Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song” took Bro-Country head-on. The specificity of the grievances she outlines in the verses walks a fine line between feeling personal and idiosyncratic versus aiming for the universal.
The tension of “Strange,” then, is exacerbated by the vagaries of the chorus. Lambert offers a half-considered list of ephemeral pleasures (“Have a smoke / Buy a round”) that are so broad that they don’t even approach the level of clichés. The sum effect is that Lambert is saying, “Hell if I know how to fix all of this. You do you.” Which, if she just outright said that, might have been a more distinctive chorus, but it probably would’ve been too grim to keep her on radio, even with the catchy melody and strong hook that she’s written here. A-
KJC: Unlike my colleagues, my expectations for Miranda Lambert are decidedly lower. I’ll forever got to bat for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Platinum, and I think there was a brilliant single disc among the 2-CD The Weight of These Wings. But I’ve found much of her work to be imprecisely written and meanderingly performed, with more filler than killer on most of her albums.
“Strange” is one of those songs that presents itself as insightful but really has nothing meaningful to say. “A couple hundred dollars feels more like change?” “A Lincoln went and a Jefferson came?” What is this gobbledegook?
An insufferable mess by an artist that can do so much better. D
“(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You”
Watkins Family Hour featuring Fiona Apple
Written by Stuart Hamblen
JK: Did I ever in my life think I’d hear Fiona Apple– Fiona Apple, y’all!– singing on an Ernest Tubb cover? No, never. But what a glorious surprise this single is. The Watkins Family Hour project is a fascinating one, in how it has served as an outlet for the Watkins siblings– Sara and Sean, best-known for their work in Nickel Creek– and a host of collaborators to chase their wilder impulses, often to thrilling effect.
The arrangement here is a ramshackle, old-timey thing that is perfectly-suited to this not-quite-standard of a song, and this crew, including two of the luminaries of the progressive Bluegrass movement and one of the most brilliant artists in all of popular music for the last thirty years, certainly have the technical chops to pull off something that’s out of their considerable wheelhouses. Is it an essential single? No, not really, but it’s one of my favorite singles of a year that has wildly overperformed in terms of quality music. A
ZK: Speaking as someone coming from the outside in with just about every artist featured here, this really is a pleasant surprise. Perhaps not the most essential cut on its parent album, as Jonathan noted, but for someone like me, it’s the perfect little introductory single. It captures the crackle and charm of an old radio show and conjures up Ernest Tubb’s ghost while it’s at it, able to bring a playful bouciness that’s just all around pleasant and substantive. B+
KJC: This is the song that best lives up to the Watkins Family Hour concept. It really does sound like the band is doing a radio show and Apple hopped up on stage to sing a number with them. This song has been covered to death, but the creative instrumentation revitalizes it. Even if you’ve heard this song a million times, you’ve never heard it quite like this before. B+