Song Review: Tenille Arts, “Call You Names”

Call it what you want, but I’d call this surprisingly decent.

Tenille Arts is a Saskatchewan native that has been kicking around Nashville for a couple of years, releasing EPs and albums but not seeming to gain any traction on the radio. (I saw all the ads for “I Hate This” last year, and while the track landed her an appearance on “The Bachelor,” it didn’t generate enough buzz to convince me to review it.) Now, Arts is back with another new single “Call You Names,” and while I’m not expecting much, I also seem to be way ahead of the Mediabase Top 50 right now, so what the heck, I think I’ve got time for check this one out…

Hmmm…

Okay…

I see…

You know what, this is actually pretty good. While perhaps not the most novel topic in the world, it’s a heartfelt, well-executed “ode to Mama” that goes down easy and features a bit more depth than the shallower songs clogging up the charts right now.

The production here is surprisingly sparse, anchored by an acoustic guitar borrowed from Doug Supernaw and buttressed by a restrained percussion line and seasoned with a dash of steel guitar. (An electric guitar and keyboard are hiding in the background as well, with the former stepping forward briefly to offer some notes on the chorus and bridge.) While the volume balance is slightly off (Arts’s vocals seems a bit too high in the mix), it doesn’t detract from the warm, organic atmosphere that the song creates. It’s the same sort of acoustic, reflective feel that you get a lot from songs like this (for example, Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man”), and it does a nice job keeping the focus on the lyrics and tracing the narrator’s journey from naivety to maturity, while also not letting the song bog down or start dragging. It feels like a callback to an earlier sound (which, given the slow move back towards traditional mixes in the genre overall, is a solid marketing strategy), and eschews drawing the listener out of their chair in favor of making them think about the song, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s never a bad thing.

I hear a lot of Carly Pearce in Arts’s voice, and while I haven’t been terribly impressed with Pearce’s body of work since “Every Little Thing,” Arts at leasts manages to tap into that same vein of charismatic hindsight. While her flow can be a little awkward and choppy (the writing admittedly bears some blame here) and while I’m not always a fan of her decision-making when she decides to hold a syllable for an extra beat or not, she still demonstrates more than enough charisma to sell the song and come across as believable. She’s a perfect fit as a newly-minted young-adult narrator just starting to appreciate their mother’s wisdom, and uses her voice to convey her feelings expertly (I like the way her voice fades out as she calls her mother lame, as well as the added exasperation on the line about getting wine stains out of carpet). In other words, she does a great job capturing the listener’s attention and pulling them into the story, so much so that I’m wondering if I should go back and revisit “I Hate This” just to see what I missed.

Speaking of the story, there actually is a story here for a change! Character arcs and narrative progression are in short supply on the radio these days, but here the narrator reflects on how they interacted with their mother as a teenager and how angry they were towards her, and contrasts the scenes with their strong, positive relationship today. Love for Mama is a tried-and-true country trope, but I like how the writer try to freshen things up a bit with extra details (extending the overdone cigarette and curfew vignettes with the narrator’s complaints to friends, the aforementioned wine-spill moment…in truth, the narrator is lucky; I think my first call of this sort was “How do I unclog this stupid toilet?”). While it’s not the tightly-constructed song in the world (there are a few moments where it puts Arts in a tough spot by trying to cram too many words into a line), the sentiment and story progression still shine through, and they allow Arts and the producer to push the song higher and make it feel meaningful to the audience.

I may have missed the boat the first time, but “Call You Names” is a pretty good introduction to Tenille Arts (in fact, I’d call her the better Tenille in the genre right now, compared to Tenille Townes’s mediocre “Somebody’s Daughter”). It may be a mushy love letter to mothers everywhere, but the sound gives it warmth and texture and Arts gives it feeling and conviction. While it’s a tough slog rowing against the headwinds of country music’s allergy to female artists, I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing more of this on the airwaves in the near future.

Rating: 7/10. It’s basically Rule 63 applied to “My Old Man,” and that’s not a bad place to start.