Single Review Roundup: Vol. 2, No. 1 – January 2023

Our first roundup of the year features releases from genre icons Shania Twain and Dolly Parton, as well as the long-awaited return of Iris Dement.

For the first time, we’ve included a Spotify playlist so you can listen to all six songs featured in the roundup.  It’s embedded at the end of the post, and can also be directly accessed here.

“Giddy Up!”

Shania Twain

Written by Jessica Agombar, Sam Romans, David Stewart, and Shania Twain

KJC: I love that Shania Twain has fully rediscovered her joy.  Her infectious personality was always a key element in making her records work.  “Giddy Up!” shows she still knows how to write hook-laden country pop.

But much like all of her recent work, the production is a disaster on “Giddy Up!”  I don’t know why she keeps using so much processing on her vocals.  She doesn’t even sound like a human being, let alone anything like Shania Twain.  I’ll always root for her, but this aint’ it. What a mess.  D  

JK: Twelve years ago this week, Laura Bell Bundy released her debut single, “Giddy On Up.” Demonstrating that Bundy had learned all of the right lessons from Shania Twain and a slew of other women, that single was light years ahead of its time. More than a decade on, Twain does herself not one single favor by inviting the comparison; it turns out Bundy’s single is still ahead of the present day. Hell, this doesn’t even hold up in a perhaps more on-point comparison to a lesser Bundy single, “Two Step” with Colt Ford. Twain’s never shied away from a juvenile rhyme, but hearing her sing the phrase, “Litty in the cup,” sets my teeth on edge. Giddy on up and GTFO with this. F

ZK: I love Shania Twain’s music. My very earliest memories of my love for the genre stem from it. I prefer to just pretend she stopped making music after her (most well-known) greatest hits collection. 

And, aside from what I perceive as an homage to the the far superior “Up!” through the phrasing of the hook, this is emblematic of everything that’s disappointed me about her recent work. Kevin already noted the vocal processing, which, yes, is atrocious. But aside from just stripping her of her usually fantastic technical abilities, it robs her of her charisma. This is stiff and awkward in a way that contradicts the sentiment, not that it’s a winner anyway; the country-dance hit of the summer, this is not. F

 

“What are We Doing in Love?”

Dean Miller

JK: Perhaps it’s good timing that Dean Miller dropped his latest single in the midst of the ongoing “Nepo Baby” discourse. Like a very long list of brilliant country artists, he’s a second generation performer whose gifts stand on their own merit. Unlike Rosanne Cash or Pam Tillis, though, Miller hasn’t enjoyed the commercial success those talents deserve. “What Are We Doing In Love” is unlikely to change that– it sounds like a smash hit of a bygone era and not like every other Morgan Wallen knockoff at country radio– but it’s a charming record that puts some clever twists on the “opposites attract” trope and that Miller sells with an ingratiating vocal. Nepo Baby or not, this is a terrific single that is kicking 2023 off on a high note. A-

ZK: This reminds me of a pleasant radio hit I would have heard growing up, able to cling to either the ’90s or 2000s in both sound and overall charm. No, Dean Miller isn’t looking to directly channel his father, and one has to respect that. But he still imbues this with the same natural warmth and overall likability that’s hard to deny. 

All that said, this scans as more pleasantly solid than groundbreaking or an early year-end contender, but a song about how opposites attract still just has that magnetic charm. B

KJC:  To build on Jonathan’s nepo baby commentary, I want to observe another thing that Rosanne Cash, Pam Tillis, and Dean Miller have in common: a willingness to make their own kinds of country music that are clearly distinct from that of their famous fathers.

“What are We Doing in Love” is a fresh, clean, and engaging record that sounds heavily influenced by the more playful efforts by the Mavericks and Dwight Yoakam. Dean Miller is long overdue for some mainstream success, though most of the guys on the radio today would simply sound too bland in comparison.  B+

 

“Jersey Giant”

Elle King

Written by Tyler Childers

ZK: Speaking as someone who’s never fully understood the Tyler Childers hype, this may be my favorite thing I’ve heard associated with him. Not quite with King, who, despite being a killer vocalist otherwise, sounds lifeless here as she drags along a monotone flow. That aside, though, I can’t get enough of the low-key folk rollick carrying this wistful remembrance to an old flame. 

What I really love here is the urgency in the writing, taking a very simple, familiar theme of young love and nostalgia and imbuing it with a lot of inherent sadness and recklessness as the character here tries to rekindle a fire they themselves put out in the first place, knowing it’s likely all for naught. They’ve changed and that old partner likely has as well, so it’s a classic case of not knowing what one has until it’s gone. I can see why Childers has distanced himself from it, but I’m glad King revived it. B+

KJC:  I can certainly appreciate the songwriting talent of Tyler Childers and the vocal talent of Elle King, but I don’t think her cover of “Jersey Giant” builds a sturdy enough bridge between the two.

King sounds disconnected and disinterested from the material, stripping out the charm of Childers’ original recording.  “Jersey Giant” isn’t necessarily outside King’s wheelhouse, but she doesn’t do nearly enough to bring it inside. This cover doesn’t provide a justification for its own existence.  C

JK: On the ground here in Kentucky, it is impossible to overstate how Childers’ unique mastery of regional vernacular resonates with listeners, even those who are not otherwise the demo that gravitates toward country music that they don’t hear on the radio. So I’ll say in his defense that, at least locally, his appeal transcends “hype” in a way that can be downright powerful. “Jersey Giant” is just one song of his that highlights how his from-the-holler POV has the capacity to resonate more broadly when given the platform to do so.

To that end, I love the idea of an artist like Elle King covering him. I’ve been sold entirely on King’s talents since I saw her open for The Chicks several years ago, and she’s continued to show fairly discerning taste when it comes to her preferred styles of country music. But I’m fully with Zack on her performance here: She’s capable of rangy, impactful performances, but I just don’t think she does much of anything to interpret this. This is a serviceable cover of a terrific song, and it would’ve made for a fine enough album track on her eventual genre debut. As a stand-alone single, though, it’s lacking her usual fire. B-

 

“Brenda Put Your Bra On”

Ashley McBryde, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti

Written by Brandy Clark, Benjy Davis, Connie Harrington, Nicolette Hayford, 

Ashley McBryde, and Aaron Raitiere

KJC:  The hilarious opening track to Lindeville is our first introduction to Tina, who will later host a bonfire to destroy the remaining belongings of Marvin, who got caught mid-act with another woman.

The ear for language is what makes this work and keeps the salty words from being gratuitous. It really does feel like we’re eavesdropping on a conversation between the neighbors, and every detail that we learn is from their point of view.  It makes you want to spend a lot more time in this fictional town.  A 

JK: My favorite moment on the entire Lindeville project is a line on this opening track, when Pillbox Patti sneers, “I used to work with her at the Krystal,” in a way that you can’t tell if she has more contempt for the woman she, McBryde, and Hammack are dressing down or for her own time spent working at what every southerner will tell you is the better version of White Castle. She sings it like a woman who has seen some shit and who knows how to find entertainment in other people’s truly messy drama, and these three women sound like they’re having the time of their lives. 

As character development, that line is of a very specific piece with how we learned that Mary Ann and Wanda were “both members of the 4H club / Both active in the FFA,” a generation ago. Of all of the songs that pay tribute to him on Lindeville, “Brenda Put Your Bra On” is the one that most sounds like it actually could’ve been penned by Dennis Linde himself. I can’t think of much higher praise than that. A

ZK: Lindeville made my top 10 of 2022 list. It would have made my top 5, if not for two or three tracks – the ones Aaron Raitere sang, and this one. My favorite tracks tended to veer toward the more introspective and empathetic side that really came to fruition in the back half. This is fine enough – if only because everyone here sports tremendous chemistry on the album throughout – but it feels better suited as an opener ready to unravel what’s ahead than a single proper; it’s a bit too gimmicky and twee to stand on its own, annoying hook and all. Still fun as hell, though. B

 

“Workin’ On a World”

Iris DeMent

Written by Iris DeMent

ZK: No matter how long she takes in between releases, Iris DeMent always manages to imbue her works with a rich, plainspoken, timeless clarity – and their power and magnitude still somehow rise above to be so much more. “Workin’ On a World,” which leads her first album in eight years, is no different. At first it plays against expectations, built around that bleak hook (“I’m workin’ on a world I may never see”), but also built around an oddly jubilant piano lick and gospel swell in general. 

But it slowly plays out exactly as it should, turning the original bleakness of its hook into a rallying cry for change – slow-rolling as it’s always been throughout history – acknowledging the world built for her that the builders themselves never got to see. And, because she’s always been an empathetic writer able to speak from personal perspective but also in a way that can offer a voice for others, she knows that’s the exact role she needs to play for others. It’s perhaps a bit too reliant on vague optimism – I’d argue second single “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas” strikes a more direct target and is slightly better for it – but you need a shot of adrenaline to get the wheels in motion, and this is a great first step. A-

JK: We champion a lot of artists who have singular personae and distinct identities as songwriters, vocalists, or producers, but there’s always a degree of aesthetic overlap. Consider the throughlines that connect some of the acts on our recent year-end feature: There’s a clear if twisting path from Ian Noe to Tami Neilson to Ashley McBryde to Kane Brown.

I honestly don’t know of any artists who’ve come along in the last 30 years who do precisely what Iris Dement does. Hers is such a peculiar– in the absolute best ways– talent that she truly stands apart, even under the big tent of our country universe. Really, the closest anyone else comes is the late John Prine, and even then, they are paired more by a thematic thread than any sonic similarities. What Iris does is write traditional Southern gospel hymns in structure and form. But the content of those hymns is rooted in a humanism of profound empathy, whether she’s singing about her own direct experiences or those of society at large. It’s the compassion in her perspective that allows her songs to function both as traditional and secular gospel.

On “Workin’ on a World,” she’s contemplating the moral imperative to pay it forward for future generations: Of putting in the work to leave the world at least a little bit better than she found it, because there’s satisfaction to be found in knowing she did everything she could to help others more than she helped herself. It’s a beautiful sentiment, bolstered by her inimitable vocal style, her church-piano licks, and the incorporation of a brass section for the first time in her career. She’s making a joyful noise on this one. Hallelujah! Jubilee! A

KJC: First, let me acknowledge how glorious it is to hear Iris DeMent’s glorious voice again, which is somehow polished by, instead of weathered by time.  Her sharp point of view as a songwriter has only gotten stronger, and the powerful optimism of “Workin’ On a World” feels like the perfect inverse of her nineties track “Wasteland of the Free.”

On the earlier record, she was piercing through the boom years of the nineties with a critical, even cynical eye, pointing out everything that was falling apart in society while most of us were celebrating a brief window of peace and prosperity.

On “Workin’ On a World,” she engages with a society that is falling apart at the seams, and cuts through our collective anger, desperation, and exhaustion with a message of hope and resilience. She’s tapping into a message best articulated by Dr. King:  “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

I’m with Iris in that I don’t think I’ll be around to see the arc of time fully bend toward justice, and I fear that my remaining years will be spent watching it bend in the opposite direction.  But “Workin’ On a World” reminded me that the work we do toward justice is not futile, and we cannot rest until our working days are done.  A

 

“Bets On Us”

Cheat Codes featuring Dolly Parton

JK: The seventh single that’s been released so far from dance trio Cheat Codes’ upcoming One Night in Nashville album, “Bets On Us” is handily the best of their EDM x country cross-genre collaborations to date. Part of that is due to a song that hinges on a well-crafted lyric (“I’ve got all my bets on us / This kind of love don’t lose”) that fully passes as a country song. And part of the success here is how good Parton sounds on her high harmony vocal, singing a lyric that shares some of her natural wit and charm. 

Aesthetically, this has a whole lot more to do with those collaborations between Aviici and Dan Tyminski from a few years back than it does with, say, “Cotton Eyed Joe” or Tammy Wynette’s legendary foray into house music. And even then, I’m not sure this moves the needle much in terms of creativity or execution from “Hey Brother.” But it’s a better-written song with a catchier melody and more natural sounding incorporation of country instrumentation into a dance framework. I don’t hate it. B

ZK: I don’t know, I hear less of an EDM/country crossover as I do something that could slide onto modern country radio playlists. And, off of the edgeless production anchored in typical standards like overmixed snap percussion and bland guitar tones, I don’t mean that as a compliment. That’s before mentioning, too, how the lead singer sounds like your typical male lead devoid of any distinguishing personality, made all the more apparent when matched against Parton (and it hurts to hear the vocal processing on her, especially coming off of hearing the same technique on the Twain track above). 

So yeah, there’s a space for it, I guess – but it’s an empty one. C-

KJC: EDM is still perceived as being all about the beat, despite some of music’s best lyricists occupying that space.  We’ve somehow been spared a full Dolly Parton dance album during her youth-fueled popularity revival, and her presence on this track is wholly unnecessary. 

I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be more country-infused electronic music or more electronic-infused country music. I just think that Cheat Codes could’ve done this one on their own with the same or better results.  B-   

 

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1 Comment

  1. I was going crazy knowing I was familiar with Dean Miller’s song. Turns-out, Mark Chestnut recorded it on his 2004 “Savin’ the Honk Honk” album released on Vinton Records.

    Similarly, I am glad I am NOT going crazy because I just listened to Shania’s “Giddy-up” earlier in the day and hated it for no other reason than it simply sounded terrible, as in uncomfortably bad for a song intended to motivate and inspire.

    I didn’t trust my initial reaction, because I was late to the ’90s’ party celebrating what Twain was doing with country music at the time. I wanted to allow myself some time to catch up with what she might be doing now if I were similarly slow to pick up what she was throwing down in 2023.

    2

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