Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 16

The best records of this week invite us to look at familiar feelings with fresh perspectives.


“Long Time Ago”

Lucciana Costa, Rylie Bourne, and Gabe Lee 

Written by David Dorn, Gabe Lee, and Alex Torrez

Jonathan Keefe: Less a song about generational trauma than generational melancholy, “Long Time Ago” is a wonder of sustained tone and of genuine empathy. Here, Costa, Bourne, and Lee trade verses, singing about the lingering impacts of their parents’ decisions. What’s most striking about “Long Time Ago” is how the narrators refuse to romanticize their parents the way so many country songs do. 

Instead, they present their parents as complex individuals with their own interior lives, and there is remarkable grace in how their stories are re-told. There’s sadness, and there’s regret, but there’s no judgment, and what a crucial distinction that is. “Long Time Ago” is further proof that Gabe Lee is operating on another level than most of his contemporaries. A

Kevin John Coyne: We confront the mortality of our parents earlier than their basic humanity. When we first imagine a world without them, it’s from a place of fear that we won’t survive. As we get older, and the responsibility for our survival shifts away from them and onto us, we can start seeing their humanity, as the mistakes we make as young adults humble us into realizing that our parents didn’t have it all together, either.

And they had dreams, which are grieved on their behalf in “Long Time Ago.” This song can only be written and performed once we realize our dreams might not come true, either.  A 



Miranda Lambert

Written by Ryan Carpenter, Audra Mae, and Evan McKeever

KJC: This, remarkably, is not the new single this week from a legacy artist that was constructed through the use of AI. Boy, it sure could have been though, assembled from spare Miranda parts as “Wranglers” is, complete with a co-writer credit from Audra “Little Red Wagon” Mae.

Lambert is flirting here with the same arrested development that has handicapped her male counterparts, who are still singing about tailgate parties and young girls in cutoff jeans while eligible for AARP.

Everything about the track screams “this is an ANTHEM” from the jump, but it’s all buildup and no payoff.  The gotcha line isn’t just anticlimactic. It’s flat out silly: “Wranglers take forever to burn.”  

It’s hot like the backdraft from a theme park pyrotechnics show, with lots of flash and fire but never a moment of real danger because there are no emotional stakes.  Nothing in the lyrics about this breakup supports a resolution beyond putting the jeans by the door for three days and dropping them off at Goodwill if they aren’t picked up by then.

It’s a disappointing effort from a great artist who is running on fumes.

tl;dr: Miranda’s burning things again. D

JK: With just two exceptions– “Me and Charlie Talking” and “Vice,” for those keeping score– Lambert’s lead singles are among her weakest. Whether that’s a purposeful strategy for tempering expectations or is indicative of an inability to discern what’s actually her best work, that’s hard to say.

Still, I’m not particularly worried that “Wranglers” is so mid. History dictates that whatever album she has in the chute should have far better than mere diminished returns on “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Because with the sluggish pacing, indifferent vocal performance, and complete and utter lack of any narrative stakes whatsoever, this sure is a po-faced imitation of those two all-timers. This has all the heat of a portable camping stove. C


“Guilty as Sin”

Chris Housman

Written by Chris Housman, Nell Maynard, and Brandon Meagher

JK: For Housman to invoke so much religious verbiage on a single that normalizes queer romance is a smart, subversive choice that elevates “Guilty As Sin” into something more interesting than just another come-on jam. Which isn’t to say that it Housman doesn’t also nail that aspect of the song and performance, too. But it’s purposeful songwriting to take the language that’s so often used to condemn the LGBTQ+ community and recast it in a song that is so unapologetically horny.

That makes for a record that’s perhaps more interesting than it is great otherwise. The song and backing track really call out for a Chris Stapleton or Cody Johnson type powerhouse to bring it all home, and Housman’s pipes are more limited. He’s still a far sight more capable than most of the men getting major airplay, and he shines on the song’s chorus, but he’s noticeably flat on the lower notes that open the song. That’s his only real crime here. B+

KJC:  It’s a tricky balance that Chris Housman pulls off here because unless you’re aware of the heightened salvation stakes imposed upon him by the cruel and judgmental strain of Christianity that seems more dominant than ever these days, this will read as a solid variation on “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right)” or even Alabama’s “Love in the First Degree.”

The trauma isn’t centered like it is on “White Lies, White Jesus, and You,” but that doesn’t make it go away. You can hear it in the fear that still lingers under the surface in the verses, and in the sense of liberation that washes over the track as Housman gives into the feelings that he can no longer deny.

It reminds me of Kane Brown’s “Riot,” where the song takes on additional shades of meaning because it’s performed by Black artist, but the song would still work well independently of that perspective. There’s no reason this song couldn’t be a hit for a straight artist; it just wouldn’t hit quite as much.  Regardless, it’s my favorite record of the week.  A


Where That Came From

Randy Travis

Written by Scotty Emerick and John Scott Sherrill

KJC:  I didn’t know that “Where That Came From” was constructed through AI when I first heard it. I assumed it was done in what is now the old-fashioned way: painstakingly slicing the song together line by line from individual takes on the song.

This wasn’t always the old-fashioned way. There’s a story about Steve Earle producing Waylon Jennings in the mid-nineties, and Jennings storming out of the studio when Earle suggested that they could splice together a perfect take from what Jennings had already put down on tape. Jennings was furious at the very idea of such cheating.

It’s hard to believe so many classic records were done without the benefit of splicing, which has been standard for multiple generations now. It raised ethical issues early on that we now take for granted as resolved, if not quite solved, like duets recorded in separate studios where the singers never interact.  Many duets these days are from beyond the grave, and veteran country industry spectators will remember the hullabaloo over Anita Cochran scotch taping a duet together from old Conway Twitty recordings.

It may seem like I’m building toward a quaint “new technology is scary but we learn how to use it properly with time” point of view, but this particular technology feels overwhelming, with heightened issues of consent and intellectual property surrounding it. In this specific case, AI feels like a miracle: a singer is able to access his voice again using new tech, and put together a performance like the one he’d deliver if he could still sing.

So there’s autonomy and authorship here, but it creates a comforting illusion that doesn’t fully hold up in the light of day. If Travis had recorded this song before losing his voice, he would’ve sounded older than he does on “Where That Came From.” But he doesn’t quite sound younger than he should, either. It’s a performance that stands outside of linear time that can only be created by software.

All that being said, I did enjoy this record on first listen, before I knew any of the backstory, and I still enjoy it knowing the backstory. It just doesn’t fit neatly anywhere within my conventional understanding of how music is recorded and released, and my brain hasn’t caught up with my ears.  I think it’s a B, but I’ll be revisiting that constantly, I am sure. 

JK: I had assumed Travis’ vocal track was lifted from a previously unreleased recording that was given new production, and I was more than okay with that. The reality that his vocal was generated using AI? I’m still not sure. As Kevin notes, that this was done with Travis’ full, freely given affirmative consent, and that matters. But, culturally, we’re still so in the weeds when it comes to the ethics around the use of AI tech to generate anything that I just don’t know that this feels right. Travis’ beaming smiles on the CBS Sunday Morning broadcast about this record notwithstanding, there’s an element of, “Just because you could, that doesn’t mean that you should,” at play here. 

And I hate “slippery slope” arguments with a passion, but this exact kind of use of AI was one of the key sticking points in the recent WGA and SAG strikes, and I think the prevailing perspective of most artists– which is a resounding nope– should bear more weight than mine. I’m more concerned about the use of AI to generate clinical documentation and drive decision-making based on normative statistics.

In as much as this record can be separated from its creation– which is barely, if at all– it actually sounds fine. It’s what I would expect a new Randy Travis record to sound like: A well-written song, tastefully produced with many nods toward traditional country, delivered in an immediately recognizable baritone. From a quality-control perspective, it certainly holds up to more scrutiny than all of the AI-generated art where the hands and teeth always turn into a Cronenburg-ian body horror. But is that really the bar we want to clear when it comes to any kind of art? A B seems fair for what it is, but ethical quandaries don’t lend themselves to letter grades. 

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