Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2021 Edition, Side B)

The train for the Korner’s year-end lists leaves tonight, and if a song hasn’t gotten a ticket/review by then, it won’t make it to the list in time! This means that songs have one shot, one opportunity to seize everything they ever wanted. So will they capture it, or will they let it slip? Let’s find out…

Walker Hayes, “AA”

All the viral success in the world can’t hide the fact that Hayes is a really poor excuse for an artist, and “AA” merely confirms this point. The song tries to make light of life’s common hardships and strike a “laugh to keep from crying” tone to signal solidarity with the working class, but between the slick synthetic beat, the guitars marinated in audio effects, Hayes’s raspy, toneless voice, and his utter lack of charisma (hearing him try to sell himself as “just another John Deere guy” is not only unbelievable, it’s downright laughable), the song completely fails to connect with its intended audience. As a result, the upbeat sound clashes badly with the gloomy lyrics (which are hit-and-miss at best—the oil-changing lines are okay, the pointless Nick Saban reference is not, and the “keep my daughters off the pole” line is just awkward), and the song winds up as a failed attempt at pandering, feeling neither believable nor relatable. It’s not easy making that common-man connection as Alabama does in “Forty Hour Week (For A Livin’),” and Hayes doesn’t even come close here.

Rating: 4/10. We all should try to avoid songs like this.

Brett Young, “You Didn’t”

Five years ago Young looked like the future of country music, but these days he’s scrambling just to remain part of the genre’s present. This song was released a while ago, and I was wondering why it wasn’t finding any traction on the radio. Now that I’ve heard it, I think I see what happened: Country music is drowning in tracks where unlikeable dudebros make pushy demands to be liked or cling to long-lost romances for way too long, and Young bucks the trend by doing the exact opposite. The narrator admits that the relationship it over, casts no blame on anyone, and tries to act in the best interest of the other person, and while a weaker vocalist would fall on their face trying to sell that last part, Young pulls out his best impression of another Brett (Eldredge), and while he doesn’t quite reach BE’s level, he does more than enough to make the narrator feel genuine and believable. The slick guitars and mix of real and synthetic permission give the song a slightly-sensual feel (honestly, this comes closer to being a sex jam then some actual country sex jams), and while the steel guitar doesn’t get a ton of screen time, it provides some nice accents for the arrangement. This feels like a return to form for Young after his more-generic Ticket To L.A. singles, and I will happily take it.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth taking a chance on hearing.

Old Dominion, “No Hard Feelings”

…Wait, didn’t I just review this song? After the nihilistic tire fire that was “I Was On A Boat That Day,” Old Dominion has returned to their senses, and take the Brett Young approach to approaching a failed relationship. This takes a slightly different approach than “You Didn’t”: For one thing, the vibe is much more springy and upbeat, with bright acoustic guitars and light-touch, improvised-sounding production (are those wood blocks, glass bottles, or something metallic?), and even some swelling bass notes all anchoring the production. The narrator achieves believabilty through a) lead singer Matthew Ramsey putting a spring in his step and matching the positive atmosphere of the sound, and b) by being honest about how much the breakup affected them initially: They were mad, they got drunk, and they’d still rather be together than not, but they worked through their grief and eventually came to the same conclusion that Young does (i.e. what makes the other person happy makes the narrator happy too). Old Dominion is much better when they try to be more thoughtful in their work, and here’s hoping they stay sober and off of that boat for a while.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the turntable.

Ingrid Andress & Sam Hunt, “Wishful Drinking”

Sadly, we close out the year with a pair doing some delusional “wishful drinking,” and it’s no more interesting than Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson’s recent failed attempt at closure. In contrast to Swindell/Wilson’s more-fiery take on the scenario, this one takes a smoother, more-pop-infused approach, with its prominent snap track and synthetic beat and its overall minimalist approach (less loud, less busy arrangement, using a dobro to drive the melody instead of harder guitars), and while I think this approach is the more effective of the two (I’d also argue that Andress & Hunt have better vocal chemistry), it still doesn’t help make the story any more interesting or compelling. There’s too much alcohol and not enough detail here: We don’t get any sense of the relationship that was lost, so the listener is forced to fill in the gaps will all the things the pair misses about each other, and in the end the benders accomplish nothing of purpose or interest. (Unlike the Swindell/Wilson track, you don’t even get the sense that the narrators made out or even met up at the end of the night; they might as well be on opposite sides of the world.) It’s more of a boring song than a bad one, and if teaming up with Hunt is the only way to get Andress more time on the airwaves, I suppose I’ll just have to put up with it for now.

Rating: 5/10. Both Andress and Hunt have better songs that are more worthy of your time.

Song Review: Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like”

This is a good song, but I’m not sure it’s a good song for Ingrid Andress.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was excited about Andress’s prospects in the genre: She’d rode a strong “debut” single “More Hearts Than Mine” to #1, and had released a strong follow-up single “The Stranger.” Unlike with Jimmie Allen and Riley Green, however, it was country radio that walked away rather than me: “The Stranger” crashed and burned at #54 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and Andress wound up sitting on the sidelines for much of 2020. “Lady Like” was actually Andress’s debut single back in 2019, but even after an official re-release last October, the song is only now threatening to crack the Mediabase chart (and ‘”threatening” is too strong a word; it appeared at #54 in Country Aircheck for a single week before getting pushed back down). It’s too bad, because while “Lady Like” isn’t a great fit for Andress as an artist and might be the weakest of her three singles, it’s still a solid empowerment anthem that runs circles around much of its competition on the airwaves.

The production here creates a serious, arena-ready sound, but one that only kinda-sorta supports the subject matter. Like Andress’s previous two singles, this one is primarily piano-driven, with some steel guitar accents to help set the mood. Some mostly-synthetic percussion and atmospheric background electric guitars jump in on the first chorus to help drive the song forward, and a cello is used to give the song a more-polished feel (the token banjo, however, adds little to the arrangement and could have been left out). However, while the mix is mostly unobtrusive and gives the lyrics plenty of room to breathe, the ramp-ups on the choruses are a bit too mild, and lack the punch to help drive home the song’s pointthis is a song that is begging for an edge, but everything here has been polished up and sanded down. It’s a sound that looks to generate a swell of power from the inside, but putting it on a track whose attitude seems a bit more rough and raw doesn’t seem like a great choice. Basically, a producer tried to turn an attitude song into an non-threatening pop ballad, and it didn’t quite work out.

However, I think the mismatch between the song and Andress as an artist is the bigger issue here. Up to this point, Andress has relied on songs centered on emotion rather than attitude, and while that doesn’t automatically disqualify you from serving up a track like this (it certainly didn’t stop Kelsea Ballerini from bringing the heat on “Miss Me More”), Andress’s performance here indicates that not quite as comfortable in the role of a forceful, unapologetic narrator. Her softer, understated approach mirrors that of her previous two singles, and it makes her seems less-than-believable in the role of a “controversial, so outspoken” figure. (Give this song to Miranda Lambert, and it’s an instant banger.) Her flow is also a bit choppy on the verses when she’s trying to emphasize every other beat, though it’s not jarring enough to distract the listener from the message. Overall, it’s a performance that feels a bit out of place among Andress’s prior releases, as it lacks to power to leave the impression that it’s looking for.

Being a slightly-awkward fit for Andress, however, doesn’t change that fact that the writing is actually pretty powerful, featuring a narrator who refuses to conform to gender stereotypes and lets you know just how powerful they are. The verses are exceptionally strong, as they go through all the ways the speaker defies dainty conventions and co-opts traditionally-masculine behaviors: “I drink tequila straight,” “I don’t even own a dress,” making the first move and “kiss[ing] on the first date,” bringing up politics in response to pick-up lines, and so on. The “lady like that” hook isn’t great, but what is great is how the narrator uses the chorus to projects her power and let the audience know what’s she capable of (she’s not setting anything on fire, but she’s got passion and love to burn, even if Andress’s vocals don’t reflect that). There’s a defiant confidence in the lyrics, letting the world know that this is exactly who the narrator is, and that they’re comfortable in their own skin and not interested in changing. It’s the sort of empowerment anthem that we still need more of within the genre, especially when it’s put together this well.

“Lady Like” is a track that is both satisfying and disappointing at the same time: It’s a good song with solid lyrics, but it had potential to be great, potential that was squandered by both Ingrid Andress and the producers sticking a little too closely to their existing playbook instead of leaning into the narrator’s attitude. I’ve called out a bunch of tracks for having too much unnecessary attitude (*cough* Robert Counts *cough*), but this song has the opposite problem: It pulls its punches a bit too much and doesn’t have enough attitude to get its message across. Despite that, it’s still a message worth listening too, and a song that runs circles around many of the tracks on the radio right now. Women have been kicking the snot out of their male counterparts when it comes to producing quality country songs over the last few years, and based on recent observations, that trend is set to continue in 2021.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

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: Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine”

That sound you hear is Chris Lane getting run out of Nashville on a rail, because we’ve found someone to replace him.

Ingrid Andress is a Colorado native whose road to Nashville included two seasons on The Sing-Off as a member of an acapella group, a degree from the Berklee College of Music, and a 2016 Grand Prize victory in the “Unsigned Only Music Competition.” Credentials like these usually mean you’re not unsigned for long, and Andress eventually teamed up with Warner Music midway through 2018. However, country music’s allergy to female artists reared its head quickly, and Andress’s debut single “Ladylike” made absolutely no impact when it dropped earlier this year. Now, Andress has returned with her follow-up single “More Hearts Than Mine,” and honestly, country radio would be doing itself a disservice by not giving her a chance to shine. At its core, the song is a Rule 63 version of Chris Lane and Tori Kelly’s “Take Back Home Girl,” but unlike that abomination, this song has some actual texture, and emotion, and interesting details, and…you know what, it’s an upgrade on every level, and deserves a moment of your time.

While this song is the kind of slower ballad that’s easy to overthink and overproduce, the production here does a nice job establishing a warm, heartfelt atmosphere around the song without getting in the way of the lyrics. The arrangement is kept small and sensible: A piano borrowed from Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl” to convey depth and seriousness while carrying the melody, a ton of steel guitar to give the mix some real richness and texture, some low-end electric guitar and dobro in the background to help give the song some foundation, and a restrained percussion line that’s just audible enough to keep the peace. The result is a spacious, inviting sound that draws the listener into its embrace and allows them to calmly reflect on the lyrics as the song moves along. The mix also does a nice job building up momentum as it goes along, while also creating just enough energy to keep the song from bogging down and never forgetting to keep the most important instrument (Andress’s voice) front and center. It’s the sort of sound that’ll sweep you away if you let it, and after banging my head against a wall of “meh” for the past few weeks, I’m more than hapy to let it sweep away.

If you took Maren Morris’s voice and sanded down the edges slightly, you’d  end up with Andress, although the latter seems to have a bit more charisma present in her delivery (of course, that might be because Morris insists on foisting songs like “80s Mercedes” and “Rich” upon the world). It’s hard to get a read on Andress’s range from this song: She cuts some of the lower notes short and her voice gets a little breathy at times, but the song doesn’t really test her at any point (as usual, a slower song like this doesn’t push her flow either). What’s more impressive is the emotion she’s able to put behind the lyrics, owning the narrator’s role and taking the audience along to meet her imagined family and hometown. Where Lane came across as sleazy and uncomfortable, Andress projects confidence and emotion, and even though she focuses more on how other people might feel about her significant other than on her own feelings, she leaves no doubt in the listener’s mind about her love for his partner. It’s an impressive performance, and one that deserves some time and space on the airwaves.

Lyrically, the narrator takes their partner on a virtual tour of their hometown, laying out both the logistics and the friend/familial dynamics they might encounter when they’re there for real. I really like both the level  and the choice of detail here, from the separate bedrooms to the church dress code to the standard fatherly bonding activities (seriously, every dad in America seems to live by the creed “There’s no such thing as owning too many tire pressure gauges”). The corresponding lack of objectification and sexual references give the story more weight as well: This is a long-term relationship (it’s been in place at least “for six months now”) where deeper family and historical ties are pertinent topics of discussion. While not explicitly courting nostalgia, this song weaponizes it better than tracks that actually try to do so: I’m finding that country songs speak to me less and less as time goes on (perhaps because they focus on experiences I didn’t have or am too old to revisit), but this one really resonated with me, and brought back visions of the people and places I knew long ago. In doing so, it enhances the power of the hook, connecting faces and places to the “more hearts than mine” line. In short, the writing is deep, descriptive, and probably the most moving thing I’ve heard in about two months.

“More Hearts Than Mine” is a very strong argument for making room for Ingrid Andress in country music. With warm, atmospheric production, evocative writing, and an earnest performance from Andress herself, this is a welcome respite from the sea of blandness the genre is floating in right now. Country radio’s hostile attitude towards female artists actually seems to be hardening right now by the looks of recent Pulse posts, but with several talented women like Andress waiting in the wings, radio really needs to reconsider its position and give these artists the spotlight they deserve.

Rating: 8/10. You’ll want to hear this.