Dang, this new Terri Clark song sounds pretty good.
…Wait, what do you mean it’s not Terri Clark?
Ashley McBryde called her debut album Girl Going Nowhere, but country radio felt the need to take the title literally, and after three singles her Billboard airplay high-water mark is a mediocre #30, with the title track (despite its awesomeness) becoming the latest song to get ignored (it only made it to #40). With her second album, McBryde and her team faced the decision every new artist has to make: Do you bend to the will of the genre and release the sort of safe, samey material that gets you on the airwaves, or do you flip a long, stiff middle finger into the wind and continue doing your thing regardless of the outcome?
Come on, this is Ashley McBryde we’re talking about. You know which door she picked.
McBryde’s presumed leadoff single for her second project “One Night Standards” would feel right at home on her debut disc: It’s a classic cheatin’ song that peers into the dark side of romance, featuring a writer and an artist that perfectly capture the desperation and nihilism of someone who has fallen to this level.
The production opens with a serious (but not necessarily dark) organ and electric guitar combination (the guitar is the most sitar-sounding axe I’ve heard since “Kick The Dust Up,” and it fits much better here), and then quickly falls away to just an acoustic guitar and a bass drum to give McBryde plenty of space to deliver her opening lines. The opening instruments slowly work their way back into the mix (the drums kick it up a notch as well), slowly building a wave of volume and energy that crests on the bridge solo and crashes into the metaphorical shore on the final chorus. The instruments tones are pretty bright here and there aren’t any minor chords to speak, but while most songs would sound happy and optimistic with such an arrangement, this time around there’s a cold matter-of-factness to this mix, perfectly capturing the unfeeling, transactional nature of what’s about to transpire. Giving the sound that sort of vibe while still injecting enough energy to keep the listener interested instead of depressed is a tough tightrope to walk, and the producer did it masterfully here.
Of course, McBryde has to walk the same tightrope herself, giving the song life but stopping short of giving it passion (which would completely ruin the mood). To do so while also doing the best Terri Clark impression I’ve heard since Clark herself is pretty remarkable, and McBryde sticks the landing with impressive ease. Her technical skills aren’t really tested here (but still seem solid overall), but the emotional demands are pretty stringent, but McBryde proves herself up to the task with a strong delivery that feels tired and exasperated (she’s practically begging the other person not to make anything more out of the encounter) without feeling whiny or self-serving. This narrator feels utterly defeated and has dropped any pretense of love or long-term relationships in order to satisfy a short-term desire, and McBryde makes sure the audience feels every word of it. Not every artist could pull off a role like this, but an earnest, charismatic like McBryde makes it seem like a walk in the park.
So can the writing live up to the high bar the sound and singer have set? In truth, the writing is the major reason reason the sound and singer reach set such a bar in the first place. The narrator here is in serious negotiations with someone over a one-night stand, and is very clear that their only demand in their lack of demands: No lingering feelings, no over-sharing, and no record of the transaction. The hook works as both a call for a back-to-the-basics style of hookup and a sense of the (lack of) standards the narrator’s desperation has driven them to, and lines like “I don’t even care if you’re here when I wake up” and “Can’t you just use me like I’m using you” drive home just mercantile this whole arrangement is: This is nothing more than a business deal, and any inclination of it being anything else should be left “down in the lobby.” I wouldn’t call it an exceptionally-detailed song, but there’s more than enough here to paint a picture in the listener’s mind, and together with McBryde and the producer, it leaves the audience standing outside the room door, key in hand, wondering just what drove those inside to this point.
It seems weird to give out a perfect score after I just did so less than two weeks ago (after waiting over a year to do it), but “One Night Standards” is flat-out the best song I’ve heard all year. It’s the perfect marriage of atmospheric production, outstanding writing, and a great performance from Ashley McBryde. Frankly, with artists like McBryde, Ingrid Andress, Kacey Musgraves, and Kelsea Ballerini in Nashville right now, Music City needs to rethink its assembly line that keeps churning out faceless, forgettable male singers, because right now, the ladies are killing it.
Rating: 10/10. I’d say this one meets my standards. 🙂