Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 12

Autumn Nicholas is emerging as the most significant new singer-songwriter in recent memory.


“Stealing a Kiss”

The War and Treaty

Written by Michael Trotter and Tanya Trotter

Jonathan Keefe: At least in the modern era, country doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to songs on which married couples just go all-in on how horny they are for each other. Tim & Faith, Garth & Trisha, Blake & Miranda… None of them have recorded anything with the specific type of intensity The War & Treaty bring to “Stealing a Kiss,” a masterful slow-burn of a single that finds these two vocal powerhouses committing fully to every repetition of the line, “Baby, I want you.”

One of the recurring themes in the Every #1 Single of the 80s feature is the notion of country music by and for adults, and that’s what “Stealing a Kiss” is. It’s a record by a couple who have been together for ages and are still crazy about each other and who actually sound like it. Thirty-odd years ago, this probably wouldn’t have been as refreshing as it is. The song itself is a bit undercooked– it needs a stronger chorus for as many times as it’s repeated at the end– but the Trotters sure can make up for an awful lot with their voices and their passion. B

Kevin John Coyne: I mostly agree with Jonathan’s assessment of husband-and-wife romantic duets, though in recent years, my favorites have included Tim & Faith’s “I Need You” and Kane & Katelyn’s “Thank God.” 

But it usually doesn’t work because there’s something voyeuristic about it when artists who we know independently come together to sing a song that we know might specifically apply to the inner workings of their marriage.  It’s easier to get lost in a breakup call between Conway & Loretta than a booty call from Garth & Trisha, that’s for sure.

But the War and Treaty are glaringly beautiful exceptions to this rule, and I love hearing them share their unbridled passion for each other.  They sound fantastic, and the sound of this record is vintage seventies country through and through, before the genre started pretending that there was a wall between country and R&B instead of multiple bridges, tunnels, and roads. 

I hope radio gives this one a chance. B+



Sara Evans

Written by Sara Evans, Madi Diaz, and Sean McConnell 

KJC: Sara Evans deserves all the credit in the world for writing from such a place of vulnerability.

“Pride” must have been a painful and cathartic song to birth, as it directly addresses the physical and emotional abuse of her partner. I especially liked this line: “You’d turn into Jekyll and I’d run and hide.”  It’s a cool enough turn of phrase to overlook that Jekyll was actually the good guy, and Hyde was the guy to hide from.  

So it’s passable enough as a song. But as a record?

Sadly, it’s more painful than cathartic to listen to. This needed a killer vocal performance to make it soar, and we got the opposite.  This is well below her usual standard, a sign that she is struggling to adjust her vocals to the changes that come with time.  

In her defense, I think that she was going for something more immediate and raw, but she doesn’t fully commit to that with the production, which is mostly acoustic until those turn of the century drum machines come in.

Go listen to the Gaslighter album to hear this kind of thing done well.  C- 

JK: I don’t love how country has trended increasingly in the direction of strict autobiography as the only path toward believable or quality storytelling over the last twenty years, and it takes a particular caliber of songwriter to pull that off in ways that feel edited with a sense of purpose. At their best, acts like Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark, and the two artists featured below are among those who routinely pull that off. 

Evans, though her candor here is admirable on some level, simply isn’t that strong of a songwriter.

The lyrics here are personal, but that connection alone doesn’t mean that they’re good on their own merits. “Are you insane, or are you brilliant / Am I crazy or just resilient” is as god-awful a forced rhyme as anything I’ve heard since Miranda Lambert’s “Over You,” and what’s supposed to be the big kiss-off line at the end of the chorus (“The only thing that you can’t swallow / Is your pride”) is a bizarre insult that scans awkwardly into the song’s meter and melody. Good for Evans if this somehow feels empowering, but these lyrics are an over-written mess.

She fares better on her vocal performance, particularly on the more subdued verses that highlight a newfound raspiness to her tone. She’s less successful when trying to elongate the melodic line to support the song’s title, but I don’t know that any singer could have made the phrasing of this chorus work.

At her best, Evans brought an undiluted twang into her contemporary country, and I’ll always be rooting for a proper comeback that plays to those strengths. “Pride” may capture something that has made Evans stronger as a human, sure, but it’s a far cry from her best music. C



Autumn Nicholas

Written by Zarni deVette and Autumn Nicholas

JK: I didn’t anticipate having cause to write about two of Miranda Lambert’s worst singles in back-to-back entries, but here we are. Nicholas continues a truly extraordinary run of singles with “Baggage,” which takes the something-there-but-this-ain’t-it central metaphor of Lambert’s “Baggage Claim” and finds an opportunity for healing. 

I love Nicholas’ use of slant rhyme on the couplet, “You and me in the attic / In a box but I just couldn’t trash it,” which showcases their growing confidence as a songwriter– like Lambert at her very best, incidentally– who incorporates deliberate structural flourishes in service to a song’s overall message. There’s a power in the simplicity of the song’s hook: “I’m holding onto what really matters / With a little less baggage.”

What Nicholas makes sound so effortless is to translate ideas that could easily lapse into therapy-speak or toxic positivity into narratives of specific, detail-driven narratives that recognize how the path toward personal growth is never a linear one. Their songs are fraught in a way that is uncanny. To have such a studied approach to others’ interior lives without losing a fundamental sense of empathy– to be able to write like this without becoming overly clinical– is a rare gift, indeed. Pair that with the loveliest melody they’ve yet committed to record, and “Baggage” is Nicholas’ finest single to date. A

KJC: The quality of Autumn Nicholas’ songwriting is so far above the Music Row standard these days that it’s almost an incidental side note that they’re a gifted and expressive singer as well.

“Baggage” is evidence that Nicholas is only in competition with themselves, as the only comparable records in recent memory are “Slow Down” and “Made Yet.” It takes a special talent to write personal material that is also emotionally universal.  These aren’t my life stories, but there are life lessons that I can learn from them.

I can’t wait to see how these songs are fleshed out into a full album.  Nicholas is on track to make albums as rich and rewarding as the best singer-songwriters of the golden era, like the one discussed below. A


Joy Rider

Kim Richey

Written by Kim Richey and Aaron Lee Tasjan

KJC:  The Holy Trinity of female singer-songwriters from the nineties for me: Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters, and Kim Richey.

Of the three, it was always Kim Richey that I enjoyed the most as a recording artist. I love her phrasing, the depth and complexity of her voice, and the jangly arrangements that apply the basic principles of sixties garage rock to modern country and folk.

The production works wonders in supporting the storytelling on “Joy Rider,” which is a joy to listen to because it is so refreshingly weird.  Richey wrote an entire song about the kid in her East Nashville neighborhood who was tearing up the town on his mini-bike, and she captures the irrepressible spirit of the little menace, at some points envying his freedom while she remained locked down in her house. (This is an early pandemic-era tale.)

Richey is still in fine voice, both as a singer and a storyteller. I love that this record exists and I hope we get to meet some more interesting characters on her upcoming album.  B+

JK: I love the pairing of Richey, one of my all-time favorites, with Aaron Lee Tasjan, who has been doing the kind of thoughtful, genre-spanning work that has carried Richey’s legacy forward into the contemporary scene. And what a joyous and unassuming little record this is: A character sketch from the lockdown era, on which Richey and Tasjan invent a whole backstory for someone she never even met. 

What’s fascinating about “Joy Rider” is how Richey’s narrator is reacting to what she has authored as this kid’s biography, a reminder of how we can all be guilty of having these preconceived notions of who people are when we don’t truly know them. It’s not either Richey’s or Tasjan’s best single, but it’s a clever conceit and lovingly crafted track all the same. B

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