The Current Pulse of American Society: June 3, 2020

Luke Combs and Eric Church spent a second week atop the Billboard airplay chart with “Does To Me.” No one cares.

We are a nation of frayed nerves and boiling tempers right now, and it’s hard to know where to begin after the week we’ve just lived through. On top of a pandemic that has killed over 105,000 Americans and thrown at least forty million people out of work, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin⁠—the latest in a long line of deaths of African Americans via police brutality, and an especially gruesome scene involving Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over eight minuteshave moved thousands of people to take to the streets to voice their anger and frustration at a broken system.

I made a brief statement about Floyd’s death on Saturday, but the more I look back on that post, the weaker and more platitude-filled it reads. It declares that “We talk about [racial inequality] a lot, but we never seem to have the guts to follow through and actually address it”…and then fails to offer any avenues to address the problem itself, outside of “Let’s work together to make sure no one else gets treated like that ever again.” It’s certainly not the most helpful set of instructions in the world.

So what can we do to make a difference? How can we turn all this anger that we feel into true progress?

  • We can donate. You can put your money where your mouth is by donating to organizations working to support activists and achieve racial equality. You can donate directly to organizations such as Black Lives Matter, or you can follow the links compiled by others below:

  • We can protest. Everyone’s voice is needed more than ever right now, and while standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a mass of screaming people is risky in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, if you feel strongly enough to join them, there are things you can do to help lower the risks to you and to others around you. Wear cloth face masks to avoid spreading the disease to others, try to maintain proper social distancing as much as possible, and use signs or instruments to make your point instead of chanting or singing (or perhaps use megaphones to increase your volume without increasing vocal stress). If you’re not comfortable being around crowds right now, you can still sign petitions or voice your support on social media, though I’d encourage you not to stop there.
  • We can support creators of color in our community. If you have a platform, you can put creators and artists of color in front of your audience and increase their visibility, such as Zack Kephart and Derrick Bitner have done today. If you don’t, you can still go out and support entrepreneurs of color who are operating in your community.
  • We can vote. This is a big one, because if we want change, we need to put people in power who are dedicated to making that change happen. Start by demanding that the people asking for your vote take a stand to put an end to things like providing warrior training and military weapons for law enforcement, and ask about policies like a $15 minimum wage and expanded health care options to address pay gaps and health-care disparities. (For what’s it worth, Joe Biden has pledged to introduce legislation for some of these ideas if elected.) We can’t just focus on national politics either: As President Obama pointed out, “the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.” It’s up to us to make those who wish to govern clarify their positions on these matters, and hold them accountable while they are in power.

Above it all, we as a people need to draw a line in the sand and set a standard for the proper treatment of others. Letting longstanding racial disparities fester instead of fixing them is not okay. Having police departments brutalize the very people they’re sworn to protect is no okay. Using racially-coded language like “thugs” and the use of “vicious dogs” while discussing protesters is not okay. As a country, we need to be better than this, and must start looking for solutions rather than excuses.

The pulse of America may be shaky right now, but I believe a strong heart still beats underneath it. If we make a conscious decision to lift this country out of the dregs of racism and ignorance we’re laying in, we have to power to construct a society in which we not only say that all people are created equal, but we actually mean it.

The blog will return eventually return to its regularly-scheduled programming (oh joy, a new Walker Hayes single is coming out…), but America will not, and frankly, it shouldn’t. There’s a lot of work to be done, but a more just and equitable nation is possible if we’re willing to put in the time and effort.

Kyle’s Statement On The Death Of George Floyd

By now, you’ve probably all heard the news: On May 25th, 46-year-old George Floyd died after being pinned to the ground with a knee on his neck by a police officer for over eight minutes (and with two other officers kneeling on him as well). The videos of the incident are equals parts disturbing and infuriating, and the city of Minneapolis and many cities across the country have seen protests and calls for justice in response.

In listening to the reactions of the incident, I’ve noticed a few things:

  • A prominent plea from many is that it cannot just be people of color who voice their outrage and call for change. White America needs to join these calls for justice as well, and several prominent figures, such as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, have done so.
  • A number of musicians have spoken out about this tragedy, but country music as a whole has been conspicuously silent on this matter. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but the only statement I can find from anyone in the genre is an Instagram post from Rascal Flatts lead singer Gary LeVox. Beyond that, crickets.

I’ve been silent on the matter up to this point too, so let’s change that right now: What happened to George Floyd this week was inexcusable. Nothing he did justified him getting choked to death by law enforcement. The matter demands a complete and thorough investigation, and those found responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law.

There are certainly issues with law enforcement training that can be corrected, and Hasan Minhaj does a good job outling both the problems and some potential solutions in “Patriot Act.” However, what happened to Floyd, as well as what happened to Christian Cooper and Ahmaud Arbery, are symptoms of a much larger problem with racial inequality in our society. We talk about it a lot, but we never seem to have the guts to follow through and actually address it. At some point, we need to say “Enough,” and make an unequivocal commitment to the idea that all people are created equally and should treated fairly. I don’t know what the next steps are, but I believe that if enough people stand up (that includes you too, country music) and start looking for a solution, we can find one, and we can change society for the better.

George Floyd was the latest in a long line of people of color who have been held down and not allowed to stand up. Let’s work together to make sure no one else gets treated like that ever again.

Song Review: Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey”

A better title for this song would have been “Disgusting, Disheartening, Lazy.”

I wrote an epitaph for Little Big Town’s career last year, and nothing’s changed since then: “Over Drinking” only made it to #49 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and “The Daughters” didn’t reach the airplay chart at all. The quartet is all but finished in country music, but that isn’t stopping them from blatantly trend-hopping in hopes of a miracle career resuscitation. This brings us to their latest single release “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” and frankly, it’s been a while since listening to a song has made me this angry. This song is a gross, nihilistic piece of garbage even by Cobronavirus standards, and rings especially hollow in light of the events of the past week.

I mentioned that the best Cobronavirus songs use their sound to establish a suitable atmosphere, but the production here shows that this can work against a song as well. There are two primary instrument groups here: The percussion mix (which incorporates everything from hand claps to hand-played drums to a standard drum set) and the horn section (a single horn provides a solo for the intro, but several horns march in lockstep for the majority of the song). An electric guitar provides some simple rhythm work and a few stabs, but it doesn’t really contribute anything meaningful to the mix. The horns definitely make the arrangement stand out and I’d normally be happy for such a decision, but here they only add an extra layer of slime to a mix that already feels too dark and ominous thanks to an overreliance on minor chords and the prominence of the percussion. The sounds captures everything I can’t stand about this trend: The pointless alcoholism, the selfish, devil-may-care attitude, and the sleazy feel of the whole situation. It’s the perfect mix to make a bad song even worse, and whoever put this thing together needs to have their access to the recording studio revoked until further notice.

The amazing thing about the vocals for this track is how unrecognizable they are: Its sounds like a group of random people shouting into a microphone, and I wouldn’t have known it was Little Big Town had the YouTube video not been released by their channel (the weird vocal effects don’t help matters either). I think Jimi Westbrook and Philip Sweet are splitting the lead vocals here, but they’re completely devoid of their usual tone, and the overall vocal chemistry of the group is pretty shaky here as well. The group fails even when they succeed: Much like with Jake Owen’s “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” the group fills the shoes of the clueless, unsympathetic, party-hardy narrator a little too well, making the listener recoil from the track rather than drawing them in. For a group as talented and thoughtful as Little Big Town, this performance is a massive disappointment, and is more of a case against reviving their mainstream career than for it.

I won’t mince words here: The lyrics are complete rubbish. This is for two major reasons:

  • If we set aside the debate over the merits of the Cobronavirus trend for a moment, the writing is lazy and formulaic even by these low standards. The song is nothing more than an enumeration of the alcoholic drinks the narrator likes to consume (heck, even the freaking title is a laundry list), and the whole “liquor names as people” shtick has been done to death in this genre. On top of this, statements like “[the alcohol is] gonna make it all alright” and “I can stop it if I wanna (but who would wanna?)” make the narrator sound like a willfully ignorant moron who can’t see beyond their own beer mug. In other words, it’s not a good look for anyone involved.
  • Now let’s bring the Cobronavirus debate back, and I have to ask the narrator, the writers, and whoever made the call to release this song: Are you serious?! Do you realize that over 100,000 people have died from COVID-19? Did you catch that the unemployment rate jumped over ten percent between March and April? Does the name George Floyd mean anything to you? The world is actively collapsing around us, and your response is to stick your fingers in your ears and funnel booze down your gullet until you pass out? I get that this album was released four months ago and the song was probably written long before then, but the song comes across as careless and tone-deaf even in a vacuum, and releasing it as a single now is just inexcusable.

I called Florida Georgia Line’s “I Love My Country” “a bad song even during normal times, and an absolutely terrible song to drop in the middle of a global health crisis.” “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” is even worse: The production is slimier, the writing is more pointless and ignorant, and Little Big Town sounds like a shell of their usual selves. This is hands-down the worst song I’ve heard in 2020 thus far, and my only hope is that Little Big Town is so far off of the radar at this point that the song gets ignored by the radio and never sees the light of day.

At the beginning of this month, I made the following statement:

As we bring this month to a close and more songs like this hit the fan, I’m wondering if I even want a place in this dang genre anymore.

Rating: 2/10. Yuck.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle”

I’ll be darned – Nashville can still make a decent drinking song after all!

The premiere of Kelsea Ballerini’s third album Kelsea may have been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, but she was in a precarious position going into 2020 to begin with, as the album’s leadoff single “Homecoming Queen?” failed to catch the public’s interest and stumbled to a mediocre #17 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. Ballerini and Black River had decided to make a full-court press on the pop side by releasing her Halsey collaboration “The Other Girl” as single #2, but after roughly two months the track hadn’t even managed to crack the Top 50 of either Billboard or Mediabase. Instead, much of the positive buzz around Kelsea centered on a different track: “Hole In The Bottle,” which garnered some notable praise from Ballerini’s peers and racked up some solid streaming numbers despite just being an album cut. This week, Ballerini’s team decided to stop rolling the boulder uphill, pulling the plug on “The Other Girl” and rolling out “Hole In The Bottle” as the album’s third single (and on a Wednesday no less!). While I ripped Riley Green and Lady Antebellum for similar decisions, I’m actually on board for this switch: “Hole In The Bottle” is a far superior song, and does a excellent job taking the “sad song done happily” trope that I usually hate and turning it into a rollicking good time with total clarity in its message.

The first thing that draws attention to this song is how it sticks out like a sore thumb among Kelsea‘s tracks with its production. Most of the songs here strike a similar tone as “The Other Girl”: Darker, moodier, and very synthetic in their sound. The drum machines are still prominent on this song (there seem to be some real drums here as well), but otherwise, the only instrument of note is a spirited electric guitar stolen fro Brad Paisley, and instead of settling for just carrying the melody, whoever was playing this throws down the best Paisley impression I’ve heard since “When It Rains It Pours” (the bridge solo is especially lit). With nothing else to counter it (there are probably some other instruments buried in this mix, but you’ll never notice them), the guitar goes rogue to create a bright, energetic, and incredibly fun vibe unlike anything else on this album (the silly, 50s-style informational parody also helps a lot). In short, this sparse arrangement completely transforms what would otherwise be just another “drink to forget” song into a catchy, enjoyable experience, reminding me a lot of what happened on Russell Dickerson’s “Every Little Thing.” All four of the producers here (including Ballerini herself) deserve a lot of credit for this one.

Turning a sad song into a party anthem places a ton of pressure on the artist to help sell the story, but Ballerini is more than up to the challenge this time. This is not a technically-demanding song, but it requires a deft touch to keep the track from falling into generic Cobronavirus territory (the narrator is ostensibly drinking to get over a failed romance, but they seem to be using that as a shallow excuse to get wasted). Ballerini navigates this narrow waters by bringing a level of self-awareness to the delivery along the same lines as Jason Aldean’s “Any Old Barstool” (they know darn well they’re lying through their teeth), but where Aldean tried to maintain a serious facade to play up the depth of the problem, Ballerini leans into the silliness of the writing with her delivery, using her pseudo-serious denials to lighten the mood and signal to the audience that while she has an excuse to drink, she didn’t really need one. There’s a palpable sense of enjoyment and confidence throughout her performance (she’s determined to have a good time, and she appears to be succeeding), and the listener can’t help but vicariously enjoy the wine along with her. Let this be a lesson to other country music singers: If you’re going to make a pointless drinking song, don’t even bother to try to play in straightmake it fun instead!

The lyrics tell the tale of a narrator who is drowning their sorrows in alcohol to get over a breakup, and based on the fact that they’ve completely lost track on how much they’ve had (“there’s a hole in the bottle leaking all this wine”), their sorrows are pretty well drowned. Given all the similarities between this track and the many Cobronavirus songs I’ve shredded recently, why does this one work when the others didn’t?

  • For one thing, there’s actually a point to the narrator’s insobriety: They aren’t drinking for drinking’s sake, they’re here to forget an old flame and have a good time, similar to Lady Antebellum’s “Bartender” or Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks.” There’s an end goal here that suggests the behavior is temporary and done in moderation (in theory), as opposed to the pointless, open-ended invitation to drink yourself into a stupor on your typical Cobronavirus track.
  • Let’s be honest: The “hole in the bottle” hook falls so deep into mom-joke territory that it’s impossible to take this song seriously. While most Cobronavirus songs pitch getting drunk as a solution to all the world’s problems with a straight face, the narrator is clearly in on the joke here.
  • While the song itself is fairly short (even with the ‘information’ intro, it’s only two-and-a-half minutes long), I think this works to the song’s advantage: There isn’t a lot to the song beyond the hook/punch line, so keeping things short and to the point keeps the song from stretching the joke to thin and overstaying its welcome.

In short, we’re left with a concise, purposeful, tongue-in-cheek song that doesn’t give the listener any reason not to join the fun.

“Hole In The Bottle” succeeds where many recent drinking tracks fail because it identifies its goal (to be fun!) and focuses all of its efforts to accomplishing that goal. It doesn’t pitch alcohol as a cure-all for all of life’s ills, it doesn’t use its lack of pretense to demonstrate its superiority over others, and it’s doesn’t use drinking as an excuse for whatever stupid behavior may result afterwards. Instead, it offers upbeat production with some sizzle, writings that refuses to take itself seriously, and an upbeat, charismatic performance from Kelsea Ballerini that ties the whole thing together. I see this performing a lot better than “The Other Girl,” and while this won’t be the endearing song of our times, it’s a reminder that drinking songs aren’t inherently evil, so long as they are clear in their presentation, limited in scope, and above all deliver on their promise of a good time.

Now if only a few others artists would dump their current singles for better ones…

Rating: 7/10. It’s definitely worth your time.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: May 26, 2020

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-reborn Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Luke Combs ft. Eric Church, “Does To Me” +1 (6/10)
2. Morgan Wallen, “Chasin’ You” 0 (5/10)
3. Travis Denning, “After A Few” 0 (5/10)
4. Carly Pearce & Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” 0 (5/10)
5. Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix” +1 (6/10)
6. Kenny Chesney, “Here And Now” 0 (5/10)
7. Scotty McCreery, “In Between” +1 (6/10)
8. Sam Hunt, “Hard To Forget” 0 (5/10)
9. Miranda Lambert, “Bluebird” -1 (4/10)
10. Carrie Underwood, “Drinking Alone” 0 (5/10)
11. LoCash, “One Big Country Song” 0 (5/10)
12. Keith Urban, “God Whispered Your Name” 0 (5/10)
13. Florida Georgia Line, “I Love My Country” -3 (2/10)
14. Justin Moore, “Why We Drink” -1 (4/10)
15. Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart” +2 (7/10)
16. Luke Bryan, “One Margarita” 0 (5/10)
17. Chris Janson, “Done” 0 (5/10)
18. Eric Church, “Monsters” 0 (5/10)
19. Thomas Rhett ft. Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott, Keith Urban and Chris Tomlin, “Be A Light” +1 (6/10)
20. Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards” +5 (10/10)
21. Chase Rice, “Lonely If You Are” -2 (3/10)
22. Kane Brown, “Cool Again” -1 (4/10)
23. Tim McGraw, “I Called Mama” +4 (9/10)
24. Jameson Rodgers, “Some Girls” 0 (5/10)
25. Michael Ray, “Her World Or Mine” 0 (5/10)
26. Kip Moore, “She’s Mine” +1 (6/10)
27. Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” +1 (6/10)
28. Matt Stell, “Everywhere But On” 0 (5/10)
29. Brad Paisley, “No I In Beer” 0 (5/10)
30. Jason Aldean, “Got What I Got” +2 (7/10)
31. Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs” +4 (9/10)
32. HARDY ft. Lauren Alaina & Devin Dawson, “One Beer” -1 (4/10)
33. Lee Brice, “One Of Them Girls” -1 (4/10)
34. Parker McCollum, “Pretty Heart” -1 (4/10)
35. Jon Pardi, “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” 0 (5/10)
36. Jon Langston, “Now You Know” -2 (3/10)
37. Lauren Alaina, “Getting Good” +2 (7/10)
38. Old Dominion, “Some People Do” +3 (8/10)
39. Russell Dickerson, “Love You Like I Used To” 0 (5/10)
40. Brett Eldredge, “Gabrielle” 0 (5/10)
41. Dustin Lynch, “Momma’s House” -1 (4/10)
42. LANco, “What I See” -1 (4/10)
43. Chris Lane, “Big, Big Plans” +1 (6/10)
44. Runaway June, “Head Over Heels” +2 (7/10)
45. Luke Combs, “Six Feet Apart” +2 (7/10)
46. Tenille Arts, “Somebody Like That” +2 (7/10)
47. Lady Antebellum, “Champagne Night” 0 (5/10)
48. Dillon Carmichael, “I Do For You” +2 (7/10)
49. Lindsay Ell, “I Don’t Love You” +1 (6/10)
50. Maren Morris, “To Hell & Back” +2 (7/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +8
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +19
Overall Pulse +27
Change From Last Week +2 🙂

Best Song: “One Night Standards,” 10/10
Worst Song: “I Love My Country,” 2/10
Mode Score: 0 (15 songs)

Gone:

  • Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Morgan Wallen, “Chasin’ You” (down from #1 to #2)
  • Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix” (down from #3 to #5)
  • Michael Ray, “Her World Or Mine” (down from #20 to #25, has already fallen off the rolling Top 30)
  • Runaway June, “Head Over Heels” (up from #45 to #44, but is bullet-less for a second straight week with a 200+ point loss)
  • Dillon Carmichael, “I Do For You” (down from #46 to #48, is bullet-less for a second straight week)

The Walking Dead:

  • Gone West, “What Could’ve Been” (holds at #27, but gained only fifty-seven spins and 179 points)

In Real Trouble:

  • Eric Church, “Monsters” (down from #16 to #18, gained only twelve spins and 160 points, and seems to have stalled)
  • Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs” (holds at #31, but but gained only eleven spins and 131 points, and has been treading water in the low thirties for a while)
  • Chris Lane, “Big, Big Plans” (up from #45 to #43, but gained only fourteen spins and lost points)
  • Lindsay Ell, “I Don’t Love You” (up from #50 to #49, but gained only nine spins and sixty-two points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Old Dominion, “Some People Do” (up from #39 to #38, but lost its bullet)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Tim McGraw, “I Called Mama” (up from #29 to #23)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs ft. Eric Church, “Does To Me” (grabs #1, will hopefully keep it another week and tell Denning to get that week stuff outta here)
  • Luke Combs, “Six Feet Apart” (up from #48 to #45)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

Overall Thoughts: There wasn’t a ton of movement on the chart this week (and it was nice to a more equitable spin distribution for a change), but there’s a lot of potential volatility lurking just below the surface. The movement we did see was mostly in the wrong direction, as Ray, Runaway June, and potentially Carmichael have apparently run out of gas, which should combine with the exits of Wallen and Rhett/Pardi to bring a bit more turnover to the charts. However, I’m noticing an interesting dichotomy among new releases: The charts below #50 have gotten backlogged enough that if you don’t get a splashy debut like McGraw did, it’s taking a lot longer for you to just crack the Top 50 (note Young’s month-long journey to get to #52, or Ballerini’s two-month trek to make it to #53). I don’t see a ton of major chart crashers coming in the near future (Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown” might be the only possibility), so look for the escalator to move a bit more slowly as we move into the summer.

On the pandemic front, the U.S. is now on the cusp of 100,000 COVID-19 fatalities, and the question of why we’re moving to reopen the country when we don’t actually have the virus under control is starting to gain some traction. The good news is that, as the Hot Country Knights point out, “The USA Begins With Us,” and while the images of crowded beaches and angry protests are getting the most airplay, a lot of people are consciously deciding to limit their contact with the outside world regardless of what their states are allowing. Given the fact that a vaccine is quite a ways away, I think staying home remains the most prudent course of action.

So what do you think? Are the numbers better or worse than you expected? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Song Review: Ingrid Andress, “The Stranger”

This song is proof that you have more ways to give a song a fresh twist than just the choice of subject matter.

I enjoyed Ingrid Andress’s debut single “More Hearts Than Mine,” but the reaction of country radio was not quite as positive, as the song spent nearly ten months on the charts just to end up as a Mediabase-only #1 (it peaked at #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart). The lukewarm reception raised the specter of a sophomore slump (especially given country music’s continued allergy to female artists), but if Andress is going down, she’s at least going to go down swinging. Her follow-up single “The Stranger,” the second from her new album Lady Like (which only has eight tracks for some reason), is a solid take on a classic-but-recently-neglected topic in the genre, complete with some nifty details in the execution that subvert the listener’s expectations and draw them deeper into the song.

Andress planted her flag definitively on the pop side of country with “More Hearts Than Mine,” and the production here follows the same gameplan. The track is primarily piano-driven (serious song alert!), with some spacious synth tones and a vocal chorus adding a spiritual feel to the atmosphere. Steel guitar riffs are also a constant presence here (the electric guitar doesn’t do much beyond helping split the bridge solo with the steel ride), and some real drums jump in on the chorus and slowly gain prominence to help the song build momentum over time. However, it’s the structure of the song that draws my attention the most: The heavy reliance on minor chords gives the song a somber feel that reflects the gravity of the situation the couple currently finds themselves in, and the use of septuple meter during the verses (the first I’ve heard since Cam’s “Burning House”!)  catches the listener off guard and compels them to examine the song a bit more closely. (3/4 and 4/4 songs are a bit too easy to listen to on autopilot. Thankfully, the lyrics are built to handle closer scrutiny.) Even though the sound here is almost identical to “More Hearts The Mine,” things are different and well-constructed enough to make this track stand out and convince people to keep listening.

From a technical perspective, I think Andress’s performance is a bit weaker here than on “More Hearts Than Mine,” mostly because her flow gets surprisingly choppy at times (especially on the verses). However, her charisma remains on point, which is important given the tricky balance this song presents to the performer. On one hand, you have to show enough emotion to convince the audience that you’re worried about the fate of your relationship; on the other hand, you have to inject enough cold rationality to calmly assess the situation and offer a possible path forward (in this case, look to the past to rediscover the love and passion that appeared in the first place). For Andress, this challenge is no challenge at all, and she again projects the same honest, mature, and action-oriented persona that she did on her debut single. While I hesitate to say the listener feels the same level of concern that the narrator does, they at least understand the seriousness of the matter in the narrator’s eyes, and how committed they are to working through it. It’s not Andress’s absolute best work, but I’ll take it over the best work of some contemporary stars (*cough* Jake Owen *cough*) any day of the week.

The writing here tells the story of a couple whose feelings for each other have grown distant and cold, and the narrator wishes to re-create that new-love feeling by going back through the steps the pair did when they first met (“you be the stranger, I’ll be the girl at the bar”). While this isn’t a terribly novel topic, it’s one we haven’t heard on the radio in a while (most relationships in current radio releases never go beyond that first meeting). While there’s at least some evidence of thoughtfulness in the lyrics (I like the way the “trace the steps” line is tied back to that first dance in the second verse), the thing that really caught my attention was the rhyming scheme: The track uses an A-B-A-B setup instead of the typical A-A-B-B one you would expect to hear. Just like with the septuple meter, this causes the listener to stop and think “Wait, what?” and pay closer attention to see where the song is going. When they do, they find a narrator with some depth and perspective waiting for them, along with a decent level of detail that allows us to visualize the pair’s first dance. As much as I’ve ripped writers for being lazy and formulaic over the last few months, this piece is a breath of fresh air that got that care and attention that it deserved.

Above all, “The Stranger” intrigues me as an example of how the foundational choices of a track can make it stand out from the crowd even when the most obvious knobs are left on their default settings. A strong artist like Ingrid Andress can salvage even mediocre material with her delivery and charm, but even simple things like time signatures and rhyming structures can help catch the listener’s ear and make a song more memorable as a result. Overall, it’s a great choice for a follow-up single that builds on Andress’s strengths, and while even this may not be enough to scale the cliff that country music puts in front of female artists, it’s still a quality song that deserves its due.

Rating: 7/10. This one is worth your time.

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night”

Cole Swindell is good enough to do his own thing, so why does he insist on sounding like everyone else?

Swindell’s All Of It album wound up being none of what country music was looking for: Despite their decent peaks, “Break Up In The End” and “Love You Too Late” both required a long, laborious climb up the charts to achieve them, effectively sapping all of the momentum he had from the You Should Be Here era. Both Swindell and the album tried to be too many things and would up being nothing, leading me to pen an open letter to the artist telling him that he needed to put his foot down and find a consistent artistic identity so that listeners knew what to expect from him. We won’t know for some time whether or not Swindell has made that call yet, but we’ve got our first piece of evidence with “Single Saturday Night,” the presumed leadoff single for his upcoming fourth album, and unfortunately the song is a return to Swindell’s Bro-Country roots in the wake of the resurgent Cobronavirus trend. The track is really a microcosm of his career thus far: It can’t decide if it’s a standard party track or something more serious, and winds up being an ineffective version of both.

The first sign of trouble is the production, which begins as an unapologetically synthetic mix with atmospheric synths, a slick electric guitar, Grady Smith’s favorite snap track, and an amplified dobro tossed in for flavor. Some rougher, more-conventional guitars and drums join in on the first chorus and take over the melody-carrying duties, but they’re the same instruments everyone else leans on in the genre, and thus the mix winds up feeling more generic than anything else. The vibe here is a bit awkward: There’s not a lot of energy or tempo here and thus it doesn’t work as a party song, but the instrument tones are so dark that it really doesn’t feel like a love song either (for a song in which you find the partner of your dreams, this mix is a real downer). It’s a sound that fails to mesh with the subject matter (not that the writing this confused could be worked with anyway), and it just kind of goes through the motions without leaving any impression on the listener.

Swindell does a slightly better job of setting the tone than the producer, but it still doesn’t amount to much in the end. His performance is fine from a technical perspective (the song doesn’t push him out of his comfort zone), and he at least attempts to shift his delivery from the despair of the opening verse to the elation of finding his forever love. Attempting, however, isn’t the same thing of succeeding, and his slight hint of happiness is completely drowned out by the production and isn’t even noticeable unless you really dig in and go searching for it. While I wouldn’t call the performance mailed-in, it’s a lot weaker than I would expect from an artist like Swindell, who has the flexibility to walk the absurd tightrope that is the writing here and make it work. (He also comes up short in the commitment department: He insists that this is a forever love, but the sound screams “just another pick-up song” behind him.) As good as Swindell is, he can’t do it alone, and just being passable here isn’t enough to elevate this track.

The lyrics here share an unfortunate amount of content with many Boyfriend country tracks, as the narrator sees someone and immediately declares that this person is their soulmate. Thankfully, there’s at least a hint that the offer was accepted by both parties this time, as the initial event is placed in the past (that was the narrator’s “last single Saturday night,” and now the pair wakes up to go to church together and all their old partying buddies miss them). Unfortunately, there’s also a bit of Bro-Country drivel here (the woman is just presented to us as “pretty red lips working on a white claw,” and with my OCD I can’t decide if I’m bothered more by the objectification of the “shaking to a little” line or that the line is never finished and we never find out what they’re shaking to). Beyond this, all the imagery (from the bar to the church) is all stock footage, and there’s nothing here that really distinguishes the track from the fifty others written in this same vein. In other words, the writing here feels like the worst of all worlds, and fails to give the audience any reason to pay attention or even justify its existence.

In a word, “Single Saturday Night” is a nothingburger: The sound is neither fun nor emotional, the writing is neither clever nor meaningful, and Cole Swindell turns in an uncompelling performance that fails to sell the track to the audience. I don’t know if this song will be a harbinger of Swindell’s future direction (as a creation of the Bro-Country era, he’ll always have a portion of his fanbase screaming for stuff like “Flatliner”), but if it is, it doesn’t strike me as a very promising one. This thing is nothing but radio filler, and if Swindell wants to reclaim his momentum in country music, he’ll have to do better than this.

Rating: 5/10. Definitely not his best work.