Single Review Roundup: Vol. 3, No. 24

Denitia, Kelsea Ballerini, and Noah Kahan are making country music for adults, and thank God for that.

“Step Into Your Power”

Ray LaMontagne

Written by Ray LaMontagne

Jonathan Keefe: LaMontagne has several albums that I’ll absolutely go to bat for, and his best tracks are always the ones on which he embraces a rootsier, country-inflected aesthetic that matches what some of my fellow music critics have dubbed his Old Man Hat voice. “Devil’s in the Jukebox” slaps and is a #1 country hit in a better timeline. Check that one out, stat.

This? This sounds like it was written and produced for the express purpose of being used in a network-TV commercial for orthopedic shoe inserts.

I’m shocked by how much I immediately disliked this. The lyrics are a flavor of empty atta-boy uplift that would make Up With People roll their eyes, and the production aims for a retro soul vibe that has been so overly polished that it sounds antiseptic. LaMontagne’s vocal lacks his usual bluster and fire, and it’s one of the first times he’s ever sounded like he’s just utterly phoning it in. That it isn’t an outright hate crime like a Jason Aldean single or something of that ilk is the only reason I’m giving this a D-

Kevin John Coyne: This has the emotional complexity of a poorly constructed children’s record that Sesame Street left on the cutting room floor during its early days of soul and funk-infused kid bops.

Kids slowly develop the ability to think abstractly, and if you wanted to help them understand a concept like courage or resilience, this record would be simple enough to help them get there. As a record made by and for adults, it’s so breathtakingly patronizing that I can only laugh.

Kids deserve better records than this, too. F 


“Coming Home”

Old Dominion

Written by Shane McAnally, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, Whitt Sellers, Geoff Sprung, and Brad Tursi 


KJC: Old Dominion has slid into the default Vocal Group of the Year slot the same way its predecessors Little Big Town did. Once voters pick one band, they stick with them for a good long while, regardless of whether they’re still making award-worthy work – or if they ever did, really. (Hi, Rascal Flatts!)

This song is a variation on the same theme as “Hang On Honey,” and I’m wondering in retrospect if I was too hard on that one. Wilson’s record at least had some energy and personality. This is a boring slog, with the only memorable element being the one you immediately want to forget: that returning home as a touring musician is in any way comparable to a soldier returning home from war.  

That it’s all professionally delivered at a reasonable standard of quality makes it all the more irritating, because this band refuses to aspire beyond just that.  C

JK: If you’re going to make, “Gonna kiss you like I’m coming home from war,” into your hook, your song should probably have some actual stakes to it, instead of just whatever hangdog shit this is. Otherwise, it just comes across as unearned, at best, and crass, at worst.

Thing is, Old Dominion have not ever proven themselves capable of the kind of gravitas that would support a lyric as interesting as that one line. They have no discernible identity as a band, other than their deliberate inoffensiveness. The production on this is fine. The lead vocal by whichever one of them is the lead vocalist is fine. That one line highlights their shortcomings otherwise, but it’s not like this is actively offensive. It’s just more radio fodder by the Parmalee of Eli Young Bands. C-


“Back to You”


Written by Denitia and Brad Allen Williams

JK: Thanks to her lovely rendition of “What She’s Doing Now,” we knew what Denitia could do with a cover, and “Back to You” is even better. I love the simplicity of the conceit here and how Denitia still manages to make it sound like a revelation. The writing is clever without making a whole big thing about it.

Her performance and the arrangement here are both buoyant: There’s a laissez-faire vibe to both that is so perfectly matched to the song’s overall narrative of how life just keeps these two people in each other’s orbit through gravitational forces. One of the year’s most unassuming singles turns out to be one of the year’s best. A

KJC:  What a sonic feast this is, in all of its simplicity.

It’s so warm and inviting, and showcases what I love most about country instrumentation: when one of the genre’s signature instruments reinforces the emotions being conveyed by the lyric and the singer. This is the most effective use of steel guitar that I’ve heard in a very long time. It reminds me of when “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” dropped and I kept playing that long instrumental outro over and over again.

Don’t let the understated approach here fool you. The lyric demands a difficult combination of longing and resignation, suggesting that resistance is futile and she might as well go with the flow. She floats back to him on a warm bed of steel, with every note carrying her one step closer to the inevitable.

Her phrasing heightens the effect of the instrumentation, as she preserves a layer of cool over a hotbed of mixed emotions, like the proverbial swan smoothly cutting through a lake’s surface while furiously kicking its legs under the water. She’s got a good shot of fooling the world, but she can’t fool herself. A  


Cowboys Cry Too

Kelsea Ballerini with Noah Kahan

Written by Kelsea Ballerini, Noah Kahan, and Alysa Vanderheym

KJC:  I can thank Kelsea Ballerini for making the 2022 Noah Kahan song “Stick Season” my 2024 obsession. Ever since they performed it at the ACM Awards, I’ve been hooked.

So I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from a straight up collaboration between the two, but it certainly wasn’t a landmark duet about breaking generational cycles of trauma.

I love the way the cowboy archetype is deconstructed here, and it speaks to some powerful truths about toxic masculinity and misogyny are destructive to men, too. Kahan’s confession that he holds back tears because she might leave if he releases them is lingering with me. 

I’m not just enamored by this record. I’m deeply appreciative that it exists. Time to buy the Noah Kahan album and add more to my Kelsea Ballerini collection.  A 

JK: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the Zach Bryan – Kacey Musgraves duet if it had been great. Lyrically, this is the most interesting thing Ballerini has committed to record– and she’s been getting so much better that I don’t mean that as a slight– and I’m inclined to say the same for Kahan based upon what I’ve heard of his output.

The narrative, as Kevin notes, surprised the hell out of me for its actual depth of character. While Gen Z loves to play Trauma Voyeurs, this song works because Ballerini and Kahan set out to do more than just compare scars in an empty game of one-upsmanship. Compare this to the Old Dominion song above– or to Ballerini’s own “Homecoming Queen,” for that matter, which is thematically rhymed with this song in a far less convincing way– for an example of a song that has a fully realized sense of emotional stakes.

Radio has cooled on Ballerini since she made some overt statements of support of the LGBTQ+ community, so I’ll hedge my bets as to whether this becomes the hit record it deserves to be, but she’ll be showing up on my year-end best-of once again, for sure. A

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1 Comment

  1. …if the steel guitar was a fine choice to underline denitia’s longing and resignation, trying to get back in a chevy “where’s the engine?!?” corvair would also indicate some degree of desperation. this gorgeous little melody would also make a perfect item for one of those “guess the year” shows.

    ain’t it a little early for this tyler hubbard tribute by old dominion.

    don’t know about the roses, but it certainly is a good year for collabs, ms. ballerini and emotional cowboys so far.

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