Single Review Roundup: Vol. 2, No. 8

All three records this week get solid marks across the board, with Kelsea Ballerini being the consensus pick.

“Wilderness Within You”

Parker Millsap featuring Gillian Welch

Written by Parker Millsap and Ryan McFadden

JK: To date, I’ve preferred Parker Millsap’s rowdier uptempo material to his forays into a mellower brand of Americana. “Wilderness Within You,” with its live-in-studio recording without overdubs, immediately brings to light why that’s been the case. Millsap’s voice is a wonder of texture and nuance, and the quieter moments on 2021’s Be Here Instead polished away a good deal of that edge.

But “Wilderness Within You” proves that he can record in this style without sacrificing what makes him such a distinctive talent. Here, his gift for melody shines, as does the empathy in his songwriting. Not all of the images of the natural world he’s chosen to describe the multitudes contained within every person are positive or uplifting, but the point of the song is to highlight the complexities of the human experience without judgment. Songs in this vein can often skew maudlin or even naive in their optimism, but that’s never been Millsap’s MO.

That’s reflected in the use of a scratch vocal track that leaves in his natural raspiness: He’s a terrific technical singer whose voice, nevertheless, isn’t one that could ever be described as pretty. It suits this particular song well, and it makes Gillian Welch a terrific foil as a duet partner, with her languid phrasing and smooth timbre creating a contrast to Millsap’s lead. Their respective strengths might not make them the most likely of collaborators, but “Wilderness Within You” is the exact right song for Millsap and Welch to sing together. A

ZK: This, thankfully, sounds cleaner than the bulk of the material on Millsap’s 2021 project, so I’m glad to see a return to form in that regard. Granted, his signature folk style and storytelling really is the best fit for this nature-themed song, which uses wilderness imagery as a metaphor to depict the potential within all of us. It’s gentle in spirit and heavy in its philosophy, and it doesn’t hurt to have Gillian Welch’s assist here to truly unlock its own potential. I’m not sure it takes the metaphor as far as it could in its more checklist-driven nature, but it’s pleasant. B

KJC:. It’s interesting that today’s eighties No. 1 is “You and I” because what’s true about that record is even more true about this one: the presence of a guest vocalist on harmony elevates the entire track.

Maybe it’s Gillian Welch’s haunting vocals that is pulling me there, but I can’t shake the feeling that “Wilderness Within You” is about something more than just the inner complications of a woman. There are lines that suggest to me that this is a man partnered with a woman struggling with mental health and wellness, and he’s celebrating the broken beauty within while also insisting that those darker forces are out of her control.  

It’s a very interesting lyric and Millsap and Welch deliver it with impeccable understatement.  It’s a highwater mark for all involved.  A


“Nobody’s Nobody”

Brothers Osborne

Written by Mike Elizondo, Kendell Marvel, John Osborne, and T.J. Osborne

ZK: This feels like an exercise in compromise, albeit not in a bad way. While it is somewhat disappointing not to hear the usual flair and swagger that defines this duo’s hearty country-rock formula at its best (think of a stomping track like “It Ain’t My Fault,” for instance), the more conventional production here still leaves enough room for a sound that’s airy and breezy – not unlike “Stay a Little Longer.” 

And, given how that song is still their biggest hit to date, I can understand wanting to recapture that magic given recent struggles. The sentiment is nice enough, too: lifting up the nameless figures of the world who, while not necessarily trailblazers or prominent figures, are still, you know, people; everyone’s worth is equal, after all. It leans a little too heavily on clichés and platitudes at points in its broadly sketched framing, but it’s still a solid return. B

KJC: “Nobody’s Nobody” is definitely geared toward radio, and it’s a minor miracle that it’s actually working, as the award-winning duo only has two top ten radio hits to their credit. 

They cover familiar lyrical ground here, though at least their actions seem to be more in sync with their expressed values than the singer of the thematically similar  “All Kinds of Kinds” can claim.   

I believe that they mean it, but I’m a little bored by how they express it.  B 

JK: I’ve made my peace with the fact that, for as much as I do like their studio recordings, Brothers Osborne are an act who truly shine on stage. Zack compared “Nobody’s Nobody” to the duo’s biggest radio hit, “Stay A Little Longer,” and I think that’s 100% correct. I’m not going to begrudge them what sounds like another hit– and this one has their fastest-ever start at radio– but the arrangement on “Nobody’s Nobody” sounds restrained in a way that something like “It Ain’t My Fault” or “Shoot Me Straight” never did. And that heightens the comparison to “Stay a Little Longer”: That song absolutely cooks as part of the BrOs’ electrifying live set, and I imagine “Nobody’s Nobody” will end up being an addition to their set lists that gets the crowd engaged. This? Is fine. It’s obviously one of the best things at radio right now, so I’m not mad at it. B


“If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)”

Kelsea Ballerini

Written by Kelsea Ballerini, Julian Bunetta, and Shane McAnally

KJC: I have heard Kelsea Ballerini claim Shania Twain as an influence, but this is the first record where I can actually hear it, and not just because of the Brad Pitt reference.

“If You Go Down” hits the same sweet spot as “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” creating a catchy pop record made with country instrumentation.  It sounds light and fresh, and the rootsy arrangement works really well with her vocal performance.

As we wait impatiently for Shania Twain to make another great Shania Twain record, I appreciate Kelsea Ballerini giving us the next best thing.  B+

JK: I continue to find myself out of alignment with the hyperbolic praise for Ballerini’s output in some circles, but each of her last two albums has had one song that is just utter pop-country perfection. “Hole in the Bottle” was that song on her previous album cycle, and “If You Go Down” is even better. Long before her gutsy performance of this at the CMT Awards, I was fully on board with this as a career-best. 

I don’t hear Shania in this one. Instead, and I mean this as a very high compliment, I hear the best of Mindy McCready’s underrated output: There’s honest-to-God country instrumentation that she’ll never get proper credit for, a killer melody, a lyric that’s confident and wry in its humor, and a vocal performance that’s charming and doesn’t stray from her limited range. Everything about it works. A

ZK: I really feel like Kelsea Ballerini has come into her own on her past few projects. By striking the right balance between ’90s pop-country and a neotraditional bent, she made her best moment on record to date, a tale of friendship where she’s no hellraiser, but very well could be if the situation called for it. It’s the faster flow and quippy one-liners that come and go that really sell this for me, where, hypothetically speaking or otherwise, these best friends will do anything for one another. Anything

With the great touches of fiddle and mandolin anchoring the melodic progression, too, it’s as close of a link in the modern day to classic Shania Twain as we’ll get – as Kevin already noted – but also recalls the best of early Chicks music. But that would also undercut how Ballerini made something all her own here. A-

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  1. …well, miss ballerini and mr. evans didn’t quite learn the lesson suggested in the chorus there – judging from their public statements and appearances lately. surely a tabloid hit the one and a potential airplay success the other. fair enough. bless ’em.

  2. Re: Tom
    Hm, Kelsea’s new single isn’t about actually marriage or romance. It’s addressed to a best friend, a ‘partner in crime’ that won’t snitch on her even if either party (hypothetically) kills their husband. I’d say your comments are better suited under a review of Kelsea’s Rolling Up the Welcome Mat or Morgan’s Over for You.

  3. I’m loving these frequent single review roundups! They’re so well curated and they’ve introduced me to so many artists I’m unfamiliar with.

    Funny how everyone hears different influences on “If You Go Down.” I hear Sara Evans all over this! I imagine Ballerini’s song being sung from the POV of the “Suds in the Bucket” protagonist a decade or two later. A huge step up for Kelsea, for sure. (Even my spouse—very much a non-Kelsea fan—laughed the first time he heard the final chorus’s “Our bodies are buried and they’re in the same ditch, so even if I wanted to I can’t snitch.”) Shania’s an obvious influence on “Can’t Help Myself,” though, and that song is just as strong and witty to my ears. I hope it’s in the pipeline as a future single.

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