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.