Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 19

This week is highlighted by two stunning covers of American standards, courtesy of Amythyst Kiah and Kane Brown.


“In the Pines”

Amythyst Kiah


Jonathan Keefe: If not quite as revelatory as her reading of “Love Will Tear Us Apart;” Kiah’s interpretation of “In the Pines” is nonetheless one of the finest and most dense renditions of this folk standard. She’s always been a terrific singer, but she sounds more comfortable wielding the power of her voice on every new recording.

Kiah knows Bill Monroe as well as she knows Nirvana, so she leans harder into the mystery and menace in this oft-recorded narrative than did the artists behind its most well-known versions. As with all of her work, the politics of intersectional identities are a major theme here: The unique POV that Kiah brings to “In the Pines” is of the dangers of being a queer black woman at any time in history, but particularly today. A

Kevin John Coyne: It’s so fascinating to me that two of the strongest artists working in country music today have released new versions of old standards that take on added layers of meaning through their Black perspectives, which is magnified by Kiah’s lens as a gay woman on “ln the Pines.”

It’s been a bluegrass and a blues standard, and for many of us nineties kids, a Nirvana song, so it’s a revelatory  wonder to hear how Kiah is able to draw on all of the song’s history yet still make it distinctively her own. If I didn’t know the song already and you told me she wrote it, I would believe you, such is the authority with which she delivers it.

Kiah continues to assert herself as a unique and captivating performer who stands out for her excellence in an era where excellence abounds. A


“Georgia On My Mind”

Kane Brown

Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell

KJC: Ray Charles recorded “Georgia On My Mind” two years before his landmark country album, on a collection of songs inspired by traveling across the country. While the song was a huge hit for its co-writer back in the day, it’s the Charles version that became most successful.

How appropriate that the first Black country music superstar since Charley Pride, and a Georgia boy himself, would resurrect the song in tribute to Charles and their shared home state. Brown’s arrangement is as soulful as the Charles classic, but there’s no denying that pure country catch in Brown’s voice as he delivers it.

Which once again demonstrates why Brown is such an essential artist. His ability to bring contrasting genre elements together on one track without diluting what makes those elements so distinctively of their genre is something he does better than anyone in country music. 

There’s so much on Brown’s shoulders here: the history of the song itself, the legacy of Black artists in country music, and the complicated past of a Confederate state that transcends generations. But he clears all of that away with a simple, heartfelt, and genuine love letter to his home state that shows reverence to Charles while still making the song’s story his own. Because it is.  A

JK: Brown’s performance of this cover on an otherwise why-bother ACM Awards broadcast was a most pleasant surprise: He’s never given a performance of something so traditional on that kind of stage, and it was a deliberate and thoughtful choice by an artist who is still underestimated for the agency in his each and every choice. The studio recording is really a bonus.

The two bars Brown’s up against here are Charles’ iconic rendition of this song and of his own high-water mark for a traditional country ballad, “Whiskey Sour.” I don’t know that anyone can clear the former, and I’m confident Brown has it in him to match or better his own personal best. 

All of which is to say that this isn’t the best thing we’ve ever heard from Brown, but it is a fantastic and authentic cover that shames damn near every one of his contemporaries. A



American Aquarium

Written by BJ Barham and Stephen Wilson, Jr. 

JK: Had I not known this was an American Aquarium single, I’d have sworn it was something new from Drive-By Truckers. Now, I’m never going to be mad when something sounds like DBT, but I will say this is a rougher sound than American Aquarium typically throws down, and it takes a few bars to adjust.

But the ramshackle arrangement on “Crier” ultimately suits this bunch just fine, and it’s well matched to the song’s cleverly constructed lyrics. The contrast between the ways BJ Barham extols the sources– and the virtues– of genuine emotional expression and the rough-and-rowdy aesthetic is smart. It plays like a treatise against toxic masculinity in that regard. And that thoughtfulness and subversive streak, more than the sound of the single itself, are fully on-brand for American Aquarium. A-

KJC:  The relentlessness of this track works better for me than it does on the Combs record below, perhaps because it stands in such contrast to the vulnerability of the lyrics. I echo Jonathan in seeing this as a commentary on toxic masculinity itself, and the decibels are probably necessary to cut through and be heard by its intended audience.

It’s a strong piece of songwriting that I’d love to hear in a stripped down version, but that would be AA preaching to the choir, as it’s a sentiment that I already wholeheartedly embrace. Let the tears flow and the healing begin, even if it takes a guttural scream to get it started. B+


Ain’t No Love in Oklahoma

Luke Combs

Written by Jessi Alexander, Luke Combs, and Jonathan Singleton

KJC:  I’m showing my age here, but dear God, this is loud.

And it works for what it’s intended to be. The lyric about chasing the devil down a dead-end highway, coupled with the inevitability of hearing that long black train, is really about going aggressively into dangerous territory without regard for your safety and well-being. Love can be like chasing twisters in that sense.

And a twister is quick, intense, and does a hell of a lot of damage in just a few minutes. “Ain’t No Love in Oklahoma” can be described the same way, and I’m torn because it does what it wants to do so well here. But I’m not in a hurry to listen to it again. It’s a little too far out of my wheelhouse for me to fairly assess, but on the strength of the lyric and Combs’ scorched earth performance, I’ll go with a B-

JK: Also showing my age, I’ll compare this to the singles from the original Twister soundtrack.

Is it better than “Talula (BT Tornado Mix),” the most audacious and avant-garde single by Tori Amos? No. No, it is not.

Is it better than “No One Needs to Know,” the twangiest and best single of Shania Twain’s career? No. No, it is not.

Is it better than “Motherless Child,” the last proper single by Eric Clapton that had any kind of rock edge to it? Eh, maybe?

And is it better than any of Combs’ recent run of hit singles? Not even a little bit. It’s a whole lot more blustery, though. It’s of a piece with some of his earlier run of hits, when he was mostly just shouting slightly-better-than-middling lyrics over an arrangement that was way, way too loud. I’ve been pretty solidly in his camp of late, but this ain’t it. C+

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