Song Review: Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”

Just when you think country music has run out of tricks…

Two days ago, I declared that “the chart’s descent into negative territory is now inevitable” “unless someone miraculously rides to the rescue,” and I specifically called out Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde’s new collaboration as a possible savior to the Pulse score. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the pairing, as neither one has found consistent chart success (Pearce has a single solo Top Ten to her name after “Next Girl” had its plug pulled at #15, but it’s one more Billboard Top Ten than McBryde has after “Martha Divine” crashed and burned at #59), and Pearce in particular has thrown some seriously mediocre singles at the radio over the last few years. What we got in the end was “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” a story of two people who find themselves caught up in an unwanted love triangle, and while it’s not quite on the level of Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’s “Does He Love You,” it’s a strong performance for both artists that does a nice job capturing the mixed emotions of the scenario, and might end up bailing out the Pulse as a result.

The production isn’t much to write home about, but it’s an understated, solemn effort that sets a suitably-serious mood for the song. We’re confronted once again with the usual guitars and drums, but the instrument tones are darker and a bit muted, keeping the focus squarely on the subject matter while also impressing the importance and significance of the issue upon the audience. The dobro is becoming a major part of Pearce’s sound, and it gets ample screen time here (including the lead role on the bridge solo) as a way of breaking up the guitar monotony and accenting the atmosphere that they create. (There’s a keyboard deep in the background as well, but it’s barely noticeable and doesn’t add a ton to the sound—in fact, it’s probably only here because you’re contractually obligated to put a keyboard of some sort in a “serious” country song.) It’s the sort of arrangement that favors simplicity and calm over overproduction and a high-octane sound, a wise move given that it wouldn’t take much to overwhelm both the vocalists and the story with volume and energy. The producer knows their role here, and they do just enough to provide support to the subject matter without becoming the center of attention. It may not be a terribly interesting sound, but it shouldn’t be, and given the pieces around, it doesn’t have to be.

The biggest contrast between “Never Wanted To Be That Girl” and “Does He Love You” is the vocalists that are involved: Frankly, neither Pearce nor McBryde are in McEntire’s or even Davis’s league in terms of sheer vocal power and presence (which translates into the sound as well: The producer on “Does He Love You” had the freedom to add a few more pieces and turn the song into a true power ballad, knowing that there’s no way in heck he could ever overwhelm the women behind the mic). However, that’s not to say that Pearce and McBryde drop the ball here: Instead of trying to make the song a super-emotional tearjerker, both artists use a more-plainspoken delivery to convey both their weariness and disbelief to the listener, as if they’re still trying to process the whole mess themselves. Much like the best of Tom T. Hall‘s discography, Pearce and McBryde approach the song as a story and they tell it like one, without excessive passion or judgment (except perhaps towards themselves). This sort of performance is second nature to McBryde, but we haven’t really heard something like this from Pearce since “Every Little Thing,” and I was pleasantly surprised (and even a little impressed) at how much vocal chemistry the duo demonstrated on the choruses (they’ve sung one song together and they’re already a better pair than Tyler Hubbard and Brian “Mr. Invisible” Kelley). In other words, I like Pearce and McBryde as a pair, and there’s a part of my brain that wonders whether a Brooks & Dunn-like pairing could reverse both artists’ lackluster chart results…

Unlike a lot of the team-up tracks on the radio these days, this song was actually written as a duet, with two distinct narrators who find out that they’ve been unknowingly romantically involved with the same person. I absolutely love how the song starts, as the “other woman” gives a detailed account of how they wound up in this predicament despite their best intentions (as they said, “they never wanted to be that girl”). The mentioning of the spouse’s family history in the second verse was a brilliant move as well, making their realization that they wound up in a situation they thought they were primed to recognize and avoid a real gut punch for themselves and the audience. Anger would have been the easy angle to play here (and it might have worked well in the story—remember what happened to Martha Divine?), but instead both narrators restrict judgement only to themselves, discussing how they feel on the bridge without ever discussing each other and making themselves seem more sympathetic in the process. (Their feelings towards the third person in this triangle are never explicitly mentioned, but it’s still pretty clear that they’re the bad guy. Also, when are cheating lovers in country songs going to wisen up and start buying burner cell phones?) It’s a really well-constructed piece that challenges your assumptions when it comes to who’s right and who’s wrong in a scenario like this, and it’s the sort of deep, thought-provoking track that I wish we had more of on the radio right now.

“Never Wanted to Be That Girl” isn’t quite “Does He Love You,” but it’s a strong offering from Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde in a year that’s had far too few quality singles reach the airwaves. With a great story, some solid vocal performances, and production that sets the mood and then wisely gets out of the way, this was an easy, enjoyable listen that demonstrates the direction I’d really like to see country music go in. This genre needs to look beyond the beer, trucks, and Friday nights and give us more songs rooted in stories and experience, imparting lessons learned and providing hard-earned, mature perspectives that make us think about the world and the people in it.

Is this song going to keep the Pulse from going negative? Probably not…but at least it might delay it for a while longer.

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

Song Review: Carly Pearce, “Next Girl”

If you “know what happens next, girl,” why don’t you ever tell us?

Carly Pearce’s career has been a roller coaster ride since her debut in 2017: “Every Little Thing” got the standard debut-single treatment to reach #1, but she was then pushed further and further into the background over time (“Hide The Wine” only made it to #13 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and “Closer To You” hit a wall at #28) until teaming up with Lee Brice to ride “I Hope You’re Happy Now” back to the top. After a few months of silence, Pearce is back with yet another album (normally I would complain about only getting two singles from her previous discs, especially when her last album was released less than a year ago, but these days I suppose getting an album at all is an accomplishment given the number of EPs that are flying around) and a new single “Next Girl,” sending out a warning about a fly-by-night ex who’s prone to dropping the L-word without really meaning it. It’s okay and all, but okay is all it is: This is a bland track with a lot of missing pieces, and the biggest omission is the emotion and attitude needed to make listeners pay attention in the first place.

Let’s start with the production, which is far too bouncy and upbeat for a track like this one. The foundation is formed primarily by a pair of deep-voiced electric guitars, with some acoustic guitar sprinkled in and a dobro whose role expanded from in-between coverage to backing the verses and chorus. The percussion is a mix of real and synthetic instruments, but it’s not particularly notable except on the closing lines of the chorus, and the YouTube video mentions a synthesizer that’s pretty much invisible. There’s some decent instrumental texture to this mix, but the brighter tones, soft edges, and especially the brisk tempo give it a fun, energetic, and even happy vibe that clashes badly with the lyrics. This thing doesn’t sound like a warning it all; it sounds like a lightweight jam that encourages you to think less and move more. The producer simply doesn’t treat this track with the seriousness it deserves, and as a result, neither does the listener.

This pandemic must have really drained the life out of Nashville: I just knocked Keith Urban for a lifeless performance on “One Too Many,” and Pearce’s performance isn’t much better here. There aren’t any technical issues with her delivery (the range and flow demands are minimal at best), but there are two major pieces missing here: urgency and attitude. I’m not looking for a repeat of Gabby Barrett’s snarl from “I Hope,” but I’d at least expect to hear a bit more seriousness and gravity in her voice. Instead, Pearce comes across as incredibly nonchalant and even positive, making it feel like she’s just wishing the next person luck (“I really hope it works out! BTW, the dude’s a total liar.” Even then, however, her tone doesn’t signal much frustration towards her ex at all). Such an out-of-touch delivery detracts from the song’s core message and makes the listener question the narrator’s believability, and the whole thing ends up feeling way more awkward than it should.

The lyrics here are intended as a heads-up from the narrator to whoever dates their former partner: I’ve seen everything you’re seeing now, it didn’t end well then, and it likely won’t end well now. What’s problematic, however, is how front-loaded the details are: The narrator spends forever talking about how the relationship probably started and how their ex is probably acting, but next to nothing is said about how the story ended beyond the implication that it didn’t end well. I understand that you want to focus on how the relationships compare initially to convince the “next girl” that you’re on the level and establish trust between the two people, but at some point the next girl is going to start asking “what’s going to happen next?”, and the narrator has no answer. The ex is painted as untrustworthy, but there are no examples of the relationship going south that the next person can watch for, and no specific scenes of bad behavior to paint the ex in an unflattering light (they’re basically just called a liar for the entire song). There’s a huge gap in the story that the writers never bothered to fill in (and at a mere 2:44 running time, they certainly had room to do it), and it leaves the song feeling incomplete and unimpactful.

Mediocre ideas can sometimes be executed to perfection, but “Next Girl” feels like a promising idea that was botched at every turn, leaving us with a unimpressive result. Neither Carly Pearce nor the producer try to match the tone of the (half-baked)  writingin fact, it feels like they’re trying to spin it as a fun, enjoyable experience. What ultimately made songs like “I Hope” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” enjoyable was how they allowed the audience to revel in the narrator’s revenge (whether real or imagined), whereas here they tried to inject fun without injecting any feeling to go along with it. Ultimately, this is a forgettable disappointment, and at a time when Pearce has already lost the “Next Girl” title to artists like Barrett, Ingrid Andress, and Ashley McBryde, without better material she runs the risk of being forgotten herself.

Rating: 5/10. Next song, please.

Song Review: Carly Pearce & Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”

Apparently when you take the twist out of a song, you take all the flavor with it.

Neither Carly Pearce nor Lee Brice have had a particularly smooth go of things for a while. Pearce’s chart peaks have drifted sharply downwards since her #1 debut “Every Little Thing” (her last single “Closer To You” only reached #28 on Billboard’s airplay chart) and while Brice topped the charts with the earache that was “Rumor,” it was his first trip there since 2014. Desperation can lead to strange metaphorical bedfellows, and now Pearce and Brice have unexpectedly teamed up for a new single “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” a song that examines the wreckage of a failed relationship and wishes the other party well. It’s the exact same song as Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” minus the vengeful twist at the end of the chorus, but that one subtraction (and the raw emotion associated with it) leave us with a bland, generic track that doesn’t leave anywhere near the impact of its immediate predecessor on this blog.

The production here is much more conventional than Barrett’s pop-leaning mix, but it doesn’t do as good a job setting the proper mood for the song. The foundation is primarily a standard guitar-and-drum affair (although the guitars that drive the melody start acoustic and stay that way), with a prominent dobro providing much of the seasoning as the track goes along. (A keyboard floats around in the background and an electric guitar steps out briefly and unimpressively on the bridge solo, but neither makes much of a contribution here.) The mix shoots for a spacious feel but doesn’t quite get there, and the energy level is just barely enough to keep the song from plodding, and the overall level of polish here gives the song a dull, controlled feel that severely blunts its impact on the listener (even the minor chords aren’t really dark, and just seem to introduce confusion about the narrator’s true feelings). It only kinda-sorta does the job it’s asked to do, and it’s certainly nothing to write home about.

Honestly, I don’t think pairing Pearce and Brice was a terribly good idea. The vocal chemistry is lacking, and their harmony vocals don’t sound good unless Brice really stretches to match Pearce’s upper range (when Pearce goes low, Brice just bottoms out and disappears). Similarly (and despite Brice’s best Marty Raybon impression), until they really start bringing some power to bear on the choruses, both artists come across as a bit nonchalant on their deliveries, as if the loss of the relationship really doesn’t bother them (which really sounds awkward when the chorus ends and the production immediately jumps to a minor chord). They’re certainly believable when they wish each other the best, but they just don’t seem all that hurt by the breakup, making the audience wonder if the other person really meant that much to them. Where Barrett brought an edge and an attitude to her song, Pearce and Brice bring a restraint and a casualness to the performance that simply isn’t as memorable or interesting, and the listener forgets that the pair even collaborated by the time the next song starts playing.

The lyrics here just feel lukewarm to me: Two people get together, one decides to go in a different direction and breaks things off, and both parties declare that they “hope you’re happy now.” The artists’s casual approach to the tune makes it seem like the breakup was mutual, but the lyrics tell a very different story: One person accepts the blame and says it was for the best, while the other expresses disbelief at the pairing’s termination. This feels like a very public split where everyone’s saying the right things and not getting too worked up over the incident, but there’s very little emotion in the writing, and it makes the relationship come across more like a business partnership than a romance. Outside of the “don’t know why it’s called a goodbye” line, there’s nothing particularly clever here, and the platitudes offered by both protagonists are a generic as you’d expect them to be. I think the writers were aiming for some emotion here, but they didn’t go far enough, and as a result it gets buried by the indifferent performances of everyone else involved.

In the end, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” doesn’t do anything besides exist, and its justification for such existence is lukewarm at best. The sound is too safe and stock, Carly Pearce and Lee Brice demonstrate zero interest in each other, and the writing doesn’t shout loud enough to make anyone pay attention. This is inferior not only to Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” but to Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell’s “What Happens In A Small Town” as well. I sincerely hope that Pearce and Brice are happy now, because if they aren’t, I doubt this song will change their mood.

Rating: 5/10. If you’re looking for a song like this, there are better options available.

Song Review: Carly Pearce, “Closer To You”

Apparently Bro Country isn’t just for bros.

For a brief moment last year, Carly Pearce looked like she might be the next big female voice in country music. Her debut song “Every Little Thing” earned her both commercial and critical acclaim, and became only the second debut from a female artist to hit #1 in eleven years (the other being Kelsea Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It”). Unfortunately, her mediocre follow-up single “Hide The Wine” completely squandered her momentum, languishing for forty-plus weeks on the chart before bowing out at a disappointing #13. Given country music’s allergy to female artists, any sign of radio weakness is a cause for concern, and apparently Big Machine was concerned enough to close the book on Every Little Thing after just two singles and roll out “Closer To You,” hoping the typical leadoff-single hype would make up for the momentum loss. Unfortunately, the song is nothing more than a recycled Bro-Country track that leans on the same tired, generic clichés that nondescript male artists have been peddling for years, and it just isn’t strong enough to merit paying any attention.

The production begins exactly how you’d expect a song like this to start: Amplified acoustic guitar riffs, some restrained-but-slick electric guitars in the background, and a prominent drum machine (which gives way to a real drum set on the choruses). Outside of the nifty dobro solo before the bridge, this is the same mix you’ve heard on a million Metro-Bro tracks, right down to the dark instrument tones and minor chords that make the song sound way more melancholy and serious than it should. While the song admittedly has a decent groove, it doesn’t have either the energy or romantic feel that you’d expect in a head-over-heels love song, and as a result it doesn’t seem to fit the lyrics and leaves the listener unsure exactly to feel when it’s over. While it’s still a step up from the obnoxiously-sleazy feel of “Hide The Wine,” it only rises to the level of being forgettably bland.

While Pearce’s performance here is also a slight step up from “Hide The Wine,” it’s still feels more uneven than it should. Unlike a lot of “emotion-only” songs I’ve heard recently, this song makes a point of testing both Pearce’s range and flow, and the results aren’t great: The slower, higher-ranged parts sound good, but the lower and faster the song makes Pearce go (especially on the first verse), the more her voice loses its tone and texture. (Flow seems to be the biggest culprit here, but even on the slower low parts she sounds a bit flat.) There’s also a strange Aldean-like seriousness to her delivery, which matches the production’s tone but detracts from the mood and keeps the song from feeling terribly romantic (if she’s madly in love with her partner, she doesn’t sound it). The best thing I can say here is that Pearce has enough charm and charisma to keep the song from feeling as sleazy as say, Jordan Davis or Pearce’s current boyfriend Michael Ray would make it sound.

Unfortunately, the worst thing I can say about this song is that it sounds exactly like something Jordan Davis or Michael Ray would record (although Brett Young’s album cut “Close Enough” is probably the closest comp). Stop me if you’d heard this before: The narrator wants to escape from wherever they are with the object of their affection, and engage in some good ol’ fashioned backseat lovemaking under the stars. The writing features exactly zero cleverness or interesting turns of phrase (is “diamond sky” really the best they could do?), and most of the usual Bro tropes are well-represented here, although alcohol is notably absent. Although the other party in this song is never really described (and thus the song avoids any overt objectification), this lack of detail means that a male artist like Davis or Ray could have cut the track as is, making it feel even more like a Bro-Country reject. In other words, it’s a shallow song that’s reliant on the singer and sound for its emotional energy, and neither party provides it.

“Closer To You” is yet another loveless love song clogging up the airwaves, combining lightweight lyrics with ill-fitting production and a subpar performance from Carly Pearce. It’s one of those songs that you’re ready to move on from before it’s even halfway over, and you forget it existed the moment the next song starts. Despite what the title says, the track actually puts Pearce farther away from the success she and her label are looking for.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Carly Pearce, “Hide The Wine”

When the sound and the writing mesh well within a song, the result can be magical. When they don’t? You get a confusing song like “Hide The Wine.”

After several false starts and one well-received guest appearance with the Josh Abbott Band, Carly Pearce finally found success on the radio, as “Every Little Thing” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s airplay chart and persuaded Big Machine Records to release her debut album Every Little Thing back in October. Now, much like with Midland’s “Make A Little,” BML decided to switch gears from sad to sultry by releasing “Hide The Wine” as Pearce’s second single. The problem here is that despite the producers’ best efforts, “Hide The Wine” is not meant to be a sexy song, and trying to make it sound like one just makes the song feel confusing instead of cohesive.

The production here attempts to fuse together traditional and modern instrumentation to create a countrified sex jam, but the pieces fit together too awkwardly to make it happen. The song opens with a prominent drum machine and sleazy-sounding electric guitar to establish a swampy-yet-sultry mood (which is further accentuated by a slower tempo), and these remain the primary instruments even as others (dobros, mandolins, real drums, and even a piano providing some bass accents) are mixed in to bolster the track’s country credentials. The drum machine, however, doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the mix, and the minor chords that pop up create a foreboding vibe that leaves the listener confused as to how they should feel about the track. These would be a concern if the writing synced well with the sound; when it doesn’t, you’ve got a major problem on your hands.

So let’s examine the writing for a moment:

Better hide the wine/And get it gone
Oh I better hide every one of them records that turn me on
Turn up the lights/And kill the mood
Oh ’cause baby I just don’t trust myself with you
I better hide the wine

On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a narrator who is looking for a sexual tryst with an old flame—it sounds like someone who is working really hard to avoid one! The verses indicate that it wouldn’t take much to rekindle this relationship, so the narrator wants to “hide the wine” and everything else that might cause a reaction. It’s not particularly witty or clever, but it has its moments (the “Two Buck Chuck” phrase was kind of amusing) and never offends my sensibilities. The problem is that it’s completely orthogonal to the atmosphere the production is trying to set, and the song’s message is lost as a result: Does the narrator really want to avoid rekindling this relationship, or is the song meant to be tongue-in-cheek? Are the lyrics or the production the authoritative voice? Are the minor chords a mood-killer, or the only trustworthy part of the mix? The song provides no answers, and while contradictory tracks can still be enjoyable (Thomas Rhett’s “Crash And Burn,” for example), this one falls short of even that.

If you’re looking for Pearce to break this tie, you’re out of luck: Her delivery leans slightly towards the production’s point of view, but for the most part she seems as conflicted as the rest of the track. This issue is compounded by the fact that the song is not a great fit for her voice: Her range is constrained to her mid-to-lower register (thus robbing her of the vocal power she displayed on “Every Little Thing”) and her flow on the talk-singing portions of the verses is awkward and choppy. As a result, she isn’t as believable as she was on her debut single, and the song is much less interesting or understandable as a result.

I really don’t know what to make of “Hide The Wine,” as the conflicting visions of the writers and producers leave the song a confusing, obfuscated mess. I wouldn’t call it a bad song, but I wouldn’t call it much of anything else either, aside from a sophomore slump that I wouldn’t go out of my way to hear.

Rating: 5/10. It’s radio filler—nothing more, nothing less.

Song Review: Carly Pearce, “Every Little Thing”

Let Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” be a lesson to you all: If you have a dream, take every opportunity to showcase your talent, because you never know which one will finally put you on the map.

Pearce is a Kentucky native who struggled to find success despite a 2012 publishing deal with Sony (it was short-lived) and “an EP available  on iTunes” in 2015 (it’s not there anymore). Instead, the performance credited with Pearce’s breakthrough was her turn as a featured artist on the Josh Abbott Band’s “Wasn’t That Drunk.” The cameo generated some much-needed buzz and attention, and she was able to parlay it into a gig with the Big Machine label group, which recently released her “official” debut single “Every Little Thing.”

The production here is organic and restrained, with the melody carried by the unexpected combination of a piano and a dobro (and some cello-like strings hiding in the backgrounds) and a drum set keeping time without any hint of embellishment. The mix creates a somber and serious atmosphere by relying on darker tones from the instruments, but it occasionally mixes some brighter notes in to reflect both the good and bad memories mentioned in the song. The tempo is kept at a molasses-running-uphill pace, which adds an extra layer of gravity and allows the listener to focus on individual lyrics and notes (although it makes the song feel a bit empty when there aren’t any lyrics to fill the space).

The risk of dialing back the production to this extent is that it puts extra pressure on the vocals to deliver, but thankfully Pearce is more than up to the task. Her voice bears a passing resemblance to Faith Hill, but Pearce seems a bit comfortable in her lower range than Hill does on her recent track “Speak With A Girl,” while also doing a nice job showing off her higher range on the verses. Most importantly, Pearce’s vocal charisma allows her to master the role of the heartbroken narrator in the song, and makes the listener feel her pain with every note.

If the song has a weak point, it resides in the lyrics themselves. Crying over a lost love is probably the most-covered topic in the history of country music, so any song tackling this topic needs to incorporate vivid imagery and raw emotion to make it stand out from the pack. Unfortunately, “Every Little Thing” mostly focuses on the feelings using vague terms (“the high, the hurt, the shine, the sting”), and the specific images it does reference are stale and overdone (wine-flavored kisses, pillow smells, heartbeats, etc.). The lyrics simply do not do enough to move the listener, leaving Pearce to do the emotional heavy-lifting by herself (which, to her credit, she actually does quite well).

Overall, “Every Little Thing” is a solid song that speaks to Carly Pearce’s potential in mainstream country music. While the writing is a little lackluster and pales in comparison to Maren Morris’s recent single “I Could Use A Love Song,” Pearce’s impressive individual performance makes me wonder just how good she could be with some stronger material backing her. She traveled a long road to get to this point, but I’d say it was definitely worth the wait.

Rating: 6/10. It’s definitely worth a listen or three.