Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (December 2022, Side B: Morgan Evans, Easton Corbin, Russell Dickerson, Kylie Morgan, Kelsea Ballerini)

This is it folks: The last train to Paradise Valley! With a ‘Top Games of 2022’ post likely coming Friday, it’s the last* chance for songs to make their case for next week’s 2022 single rankings (*sadly there’s always one or two late arrivals that mess up my schedule, but hopefully we’re done for the year).

Morgan Evans, “Over For You”

In theory, I should feel as bad for Evans as I did for Justin Moore, as both artists had their last singles relegated to the same year-end lightning round post. Instead, I pretty much forgot this dude existed, and since he hasn’t cracked the Top 40 since “Day Drunk” crashed and burned at #21 in 2019, can you blame me? It’s been a rocky road for Evans since them both musically and professionally, and his latest single “Over For You” seems to be a response to his recent divorce from Kelsea Ballerini. For its part, the production here is suitably sad, dominated by (you guessed it) a piano and supported by some background gutars, light-touch percussion, and repetitive background vocals. My main gripe, however, is the narrator’s attitude in the lyrics: They put the blame squarely on the other person, insinuating that it was their feelings that changed and that they’ve been going through the motions for quite some time (and eventually building to the “How long has it been over for you?” question on the hook). However, they completely ignore their own potential culpability in the matter: They claim that they still care and would have done anything foe their ex-partner (even “let go if you wanted me to”), but if this issue was a long time coming, why didn’t the narrator notice when things started going off the rails? How might their own actions led to their partner’s decision? Instead, it’s framed as a “you problem,” and Evans’s performance (which is dripping with both ignorance and indignance) doesn’t win him much sympathy here. In the end, he can’t make me feel that all that bad or him or interest me in listening to his tale of woe, especially in a genre that’s drowning in these ‘woe is me’ songs.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Easton Corbin, “I Can’t Decide”

Of course, Evans’s musical journey has been a smooth ride compared to Corbin’s: He was unceremoniously dropped from Mercury Records in 2018 after “A Girl Like You” took over a year just to get to #6, and he’s never really recovered from that (despite putting out some decent singles in the meantime). The ordeal has forced Corbin to conform to the Nashville meta just to get a second look, and thus we get derivative drivel like “I Can’t Decide.” This song isn’t just a laundry list, it’s a laundry list that’s so chock full of overused buzzwords that I’m surprised it wasn’t written by ChatGPT. The level of detail is decent, but the contrasts aren’t always sharp and it’s the same sort of unimaginative “country” schlock that we get from every other song in the genre: The drinking, the driving, the girl, the night, the jeans, etc. This issue extends to the production as well: The sound is defined by guitars, drums, and unnecessary minor chords that detract from the positive atmosphere the song wants to set. It goes even farther: The token banjo is ripped straight from the Bro-Country playbook, and the steel guitar is pushed to the background and given just enough airtime to justify the song’s Spotify tags. Corbin is the only reason to tune in here: He’s still got his trademark earnest charisma that really sells his affection for the other person, and I still contend that he’s a better vocalist that 90% of the artists in the meta today (admittedly the guitar tones have a hint of his signature sound to them as well). You should absolutely check out Corbin’s discography…but you’re free to ignore this one.

Rating: 5/10. No thanks.

Russell Dickerson, “God Gave Me A Girl”

Boyfriend country has given way to Ex-Boyfriend country in the last year or so, and acts that had built their brand on that saccharine sound such as Dickerson, Brett Young, and even Dan + Shay have been severely punished for it. (Parmalee is a kinda-sorta exception, but even their hits take a million freaking years to climb the charts.) Neither of Dickerson’s last two releases (“Home Sweet” and “She Likes It”) managed to crack the Top 10, and honestly I don’t hold out much hope for this song either. For one thing, the producer made some awful decisions here, burying the guitars and beat in washed-out audio effects and turning the mix into an amorphous wall of noise (the acoustic guitar and real drums are less encumbered and sound a bit more distinct, but they overwhelmed by the rest of this mess). The story is a bit of a tired trope as well (formerly-wild guy finds love and has their whole life changed), and as a Boyfriend veteran, Dickerson doesn’t wear the narrator’s mantle terribly well (this guy’s given us nothing but love songs since 2017; trying to say he was “all about that single life” feels more than a little disingenuous). To his credit, Dickerson knows how to sell a love song and is much more believable when he says he’s going to give this person “my last name” and “forever,” but there’s nothing here that distinguishes it from its Boyfriend brethren—there’s nothing personal here to give this song some real meaning. It’s not a bad song, but it’s not one I want to revisit once this review’s over either.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Kylie Morgan, “If He Wanted To He Would”

Morgan is an Oklahoma native who signed with UMG Nashville three years ago but is only now releasing a single to radio. She’s a bit of a Miranda Lambert clone vocally, and given the abysmal track record Nashville has had with debut singles lately, I think this song actually qualifies as a success. I like the how the song opens with a social-media reference (it’s something that rarely gets a mention on the radio, which instantly catches the listener’s ear), I like the writing’s straightforward delivery of the message (there’s a difference between casual feeling and a deep relationship, and the narrator’s friend is dealing with the former), and I like how Morgan delivers the song with enough authority and confidence to make her case with the audience. However, I’m not a huge fan of the production: The drums are way too loud in the mix, and the electric and steel guitars feel like background set pieces instead of truly anchoring the melody. I think Morgan could do a bit more with her performance as well: It lacks Lambert’s trademark attitude and sass, and it feels like you could really go big, show off some personality, and have some fun with a song like this. I’d stop short of calling this a good song, but it’s definitely an intriguing tune that shows off Morgan’s potential and makes me wonder what we might see from her in the future.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a listen or three to see what you think.

Kelsea Ballerini, “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN DOWN TOO)”

*sigh* Again with the all-caps titles? Still, this track is a clear upgrade from Ballerini’s previous (and unremarkable) single “HEARTFIRST,” showcasing solid performances from everyone involved. Don’t sleep on the heavy lifting the production does on this track. Sure, it’s got the rich, vibrant sound of a Chicks single and has a lot of musical diversity, featuring classic instruments (dobro, fiddle, mandolin, etc.) trading the lead role with expert precision, but the resulting light, breezy, and eternally-positive vibe does a lot to take the edge off of the writing, which features some…questionable behavior—robbing banks, killing husbands, lying under oath—and has to make sure the audience knows the narrator’s tongue is firmly place in their cheek. (Hey, if this sound can make murder palatable on “Goodbye Earl,” it can make this work too.) For Ballerini’s part, she captures the ride-or-die vibe of a devoted friend perfectly, and shows off the playful side to her personality that made “Hole In The Bottle” such a fun ride. Despite the writing’s penchant for crimes, we have to give it credit for keeping the ‘bad behavior’ thread going throughout the entire song without it ever feeling forced or cheesy, and it’s worth noting that in a sea of love songs, friendship songs tend to be few and far between, allowing the song to stand out in yet another dimension. This is a track that really deserved its own separate review (which I was planning to do until I realized how little time I had left), and it’s not only the class of the field here, it’s one of the better songs I’ve heard all year.

Rating: 7/10. Hurry up and check this one out while they’re still appealing the convictions.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “HEARTFIRST”

This is exactly the sort of song I didn’t want Kelsea Ballerini to release.

I’ve been a Ballerini booster ever since she dropped The First Time back in 2015, mostly because as a writer and vocalist, she had the skill to eschew generic and mediocre material to dive in more-complex topics and feelings, as she does on songs like “Peter Pan,” “Miss Me More,” and even her recent single with Kenny Chesney “Half Of My Hometown.” The problem is that early on, Black River tried to push her into a standard pop-princess model by dropping lightweight singles such as “Dibs,” “Legends,” and “Yeah Boy” (I gave this an 8/10 in one of my first reviews back in the day, which says more about how my musical tastes have evolved over the years than anything else), which felt like a colossal waste of her talents. Unfortunately, much like some other artists that emerged in the Bro-Country era (Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, etc.), there’s a portion of their fanbase that will always crave those songs, which leads us to “HEARTFELT,” the presumed leadoff single to Ballerini’s fourth* album (*I’m counting kelsea and ballerini as the same album; one’s just a re-recording of the other). It’s a love song that’s adequately-executed but ultimately unremarkable, and doesn’t encourage the listener to stay tuned in.

The production sets a suitable mood, for the song, but doesn’t go beyond that to help draw in its audience. The song opens with some bright acoustic strings (guitars and mandolins) and some slurry synth tones that run the risk of washing out the sound, and then brings in the usual electric guitars and drums (the latter of which sound overly sharp on top on the synth stabs) and gives spot duty to a steel guitar that ultimately doesn’t get enough screen time to influence the sound much. The tones are bright and the tempo is relaxed, resulting in a light, fluffy sound that helps supplement the romantic aims of the writing. Yes, there’s a ephemeral and superficial vibe to the sound, making the relationship feel like a simple passion-driven fling rather than any substantial, but that’s kind of what the writing wants as well: If someone is diving in “HEARTFIRST,” they’re accepting the risk, rolling the dice, and trying to stay in the moment. My main issue here is that there’s nothing here beyond by brief steel guitar appearances to elevate this mix beyond background noise: These are nothing but empty sonic calories, and while they complement the writing, their sales job is mediocre at best. It’s a lightweight mix that feels unmoored, and the feeling vanishes as quickly as the emotions that inspired it once the song ends.

Ballerini’s performance suffers from much the same problem: She breezes through the song without breaking a sweat and captures the smitten-yet-self-aware vibe of the narrator, but there’s something missing to break through to the audience and get them to pay attention. Her relaxed delivery makes sense for much of the song, but seems like it glosses over some of the pitfalls of a failed romantic bet (it’s like “sure, we could end up hating each other’s guts and cursing our very existence, but whatevs”), and by not dropping any forceful passion on us, the listener gets the sense that’s they’re not really invested in the relationship or even care whether it blossoms or wilts. The result is that in turn, the audience never feels the need to care about the narrator’s story either: Sure, they seem happy and all, but this tale’s been told a million times before—why should we concern ourselves with this one, especially when you don’t seem to care much about it yourself? In the end, Ballerini’s approach doesn’t hurt the song, but it doesn’t help it much either, and the listener quickly moves on when the song ends.

Generously, you could say that the lyrics capture the narrator’s intense feelings at the start of a new potential romance, where they don’t care where things end up because they feel so good right now. Cynically, you could say that this song is the mirrored version of all the nihilistic Bro-Country and Boyfriend country tracks we’ve had dumped on us over the last few years: The narrator runs into someone, declares them a person of interest, and pursues them in the name of a one-night stand with no thoughts or cares about the future. The scenes are stock images of drinking, dancing, t-shirts and elevator makeouts, and while the narrator is fully aware that whatever they’re feeling might not last, their devil-may-care attitude makes the story feel more like a product of aimless passion rather than love. Throw in a meh hook and the presence of only one standout line in the entire song (“only the moon knows what’s in the stars”), and you’ve got a recipe for kinda-sorta-maybe love song that’s more forgettable than anything else. (Also, and I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned this yet, but can we stop with the pointless ALL-CAPS song titles already?)

“HEARTFIRST” feels like yet another attempt to stuff Kelsea Ballerini into the same old boring country-pop princess mold, and what Black River needs to realize (and needed to realize years ago) is that this woman is way better than that. I get that summer’s coming and this thing simply screams “radio-friendly,” but this song just feels lightweight and hollow, a throwaway track when they really needed an album-mover, and it just doesn’t compare well when stacked up against Ballerini’s best work. In the end, this is a thing that merely exists, and in six months no one will remember that it existed at all.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way to hear this one.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown”

The best way to sing a hometown song is to not focus on the hometown.

Kelsea Ballerini found herself in a tough spot after “Homecoming Queen?” only reached #17 on Billboard’s Airplay Chart, “The Other Girl” failed to launch at all, and the release of kelsea was disrupted by a global pandemic. Luckily, she had an ace up her sleeve in the form of “Hole In The Bottle,” a song that seems to strike a chord with the country music community even as it had to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (and there’s no shame in finishing second to Thanos), and helped get the re-release of her album ballerini off the ground and out into the world. Now, she’s back with fellow Knoxvillian Kenny Chesney to discuss their shared place of origin in “Half Of My Hometown,” and while I generally don’t like songs like this, I feel a bit more positive about this one because it focuses on the people more than the place, and generally seems more clear-eyed and honest about the mixed emotions the location makes her feel.

Speaking of mixed emotions, that’s what I feel when I listen to the production: It generates a suitably wistful atmosphere to support the subject matter, but it also blends it a bit too much with the rest of the radio and is begging for a bit more instrument diversity. Yes, there’s a mandolin that helps open the track and gets some extended airtime on the second verse, and there’s a token banjo that’s barely noticeable as it slow-rolls in the background, but the primary melody drivers are the usual suspects: An acoustic guitar and a drum machine for the verses, and some electric guitars and real drums that jump in for the chorus. It feels like a “necessary but not sufficient”sort of mix: It supports the writing by reflecting the qualified devotion to the area and giving the song a balanced and neutral feel, but it could have done so much more to make the song stand out—an extra instrument here, a different riff there, etc. (I’m also a bit conflicted about how well the electronic beat blends with the acoustic instruments; the pairing seems a bit awkward, even despite how restrained the beat is.) I suppose that what we get is okay overall and you can’t say it doesn’t do its job, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to me.

I would call Ballerini’s performance as quietly impressive, given the surprising degree of difficulty presented by the song’s tone. Its limited range and relaxed flow present no challenge, but the artist has to strike a careful balance with their delivery: The have to exhibit impartiality with their message without coming across as disinterested or bored. In this regard, Ballerini does a nice judge projecting feeling without judgement, painting a picture with their words and letting the audience draw their own conclusions. You get the sense that she appreciates her hometown and the people in it regardless of their feelings or behaviors, although I wasn’t convinced to reflect and be more appreciative of my own hometown as a result (it’s an evil place, don’t ever go there). I know Chesney also hails from Knoxville and is therefore a logical choice to help out with this song (even if it’s just for harmony vocals), but I honestly don’t think it was a good choice: His voice is distinct but doesn’t add a ton to the song, and he and Ballerini don’t sound good together at all (and given how little volume Chesney’s vocals get, the producers seem to agree). Despite that, however, I think the vocals are a net positive on balance, and reflect how far Ballerini has come from the pop-princess image Black River was pushing a few years ago.

Talking about someone’s hometown is old hat is country music (especially when an artist is trying to flex their credentials), but generally the songs devolve into checklist tracks featuring beer, mama, and old athletic achievements. Instead, this song takes a different approach by focusing more on the people the narrator grew up with, and how their behavior has diverged over time: Some stayed and reveled in their history, while others left to chase a better future. The song tries not to play favorites and deliver both sides of the argument, and does a nice job focusing on some aspects of leaving home that don’t get a lot of airtime (how opinions differ on the narrator leaving, the contrast between “miniskirts” and “dressed for church,” and so on). There are definitely some subpar moments here (the initial contrast between drinking and making out doesn’t really go anywhere, and the math doesn’t add up on the hook—”part of me will always be half of my hometown” feels like a awfully small percentage of hometown), but the descriptions are generally vivid and lively (the crowd singing the fight song at the end was particularly well done). I’m not a hometown homer, but I heard enough on this track to appreciate where the listener was coming from.

I wouldn’t call “Half Of My Hometown” a great song, but it’s a solid effort from Kelsea Ballerini that is radio-friendly enough to build on her momentum from “Hole In The Bottle.” While I think the track had a lot more potential in its sound and could have used another iteration or two on the lyrics, Ballerini does a nice job on the vocals (Kenny Chesney less so, but his role is effectively minimal anyway) and helps elevate the track above the soundalike songs I’ve been reviewing lately. It’s the kind of hometown ode that I can actually get behind, and given how stale the radio has felt lately, I’ll take any good news that I can I get.

Rating: 6/10. Give this a few spins to see what you think.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole In The Bottle”

I’ll be darned – Nashville can still make a decent drinking song after all!

The premiere of Kelsea Ballerini’s third album Kelsea may have been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, but she was in a precarious position going into 2020 to begin with, as the album’s leadoff single “Homecoming Queen?” failed to catch the public’s interest and stumbled to a mediocre #17 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. Ballerini and Black River had decided to make a full-court press on the pop side by releasing her Halsey collaboration “The Other Girl” as single #2, but after roughly two months the track hadn’t even managed to crack the Top 50 of either Billboard or Mediabase. Instead, much of the positive buzz around Kelsea centered on a different track: “Hole In The Bottle,” which garnered some notable praise from Ballerini’s peers and racked up some solid streaming numbers despite just being an album cut. This week, Ballerini’s team decided to stop rolling the boulder uphill, pulling the plug on “The Other Girl” and rolling out “Hole In The Bottle” as the album’s third single (and on a Wednesday no less!). While I ripped Riley Green and Lady Antebellum for similar decisions, I’m actually on board for this switch: “Hole In The Bottle” is a far superior song, and does a excellent job taking the “sad song done happily” trope that I usually hate and turning it into a rollicking good time with total clarity in its message.

The first thing that draws attention to this song is how it sticks out like a sore thumb among Kelsea‘s tracks with its production. Most of the songs here strike a similar tone as “The Other Girl”: Darker, moodier, and very synthetic in their sound. The drum machines are still prominent on this song (there seem to be some real drums here as well), but otherwise, the only instrument of note is a spirited electric guitar stolen fro Brad Paisley, and instead of settling for just carrying the melody, whoever was playing this throws down the best Paisley impression I’ve heard since “When It Rains It Pours” (the bridge solo is especially lit). With nothing else to counter it (there are probably some other instruments buried in this mix, but you’ll never notice them), the guitar goes rogue to create a bright, energetic, and incredibly fun vibe unlike anything else on this album (the silly, 50s-style informational parody also helps a lot). In short, this sparse arrangement completely transforms what would otherwise be just another “drink to forget” song into a catchy, enjoyable experience, reminding me a lot of what happened on Russell Dickerson’s “Every Little Thing.” All four of the producers here (including Ballerini herself) deserve a lot of credit for this one.

Turning a sad song into a party anthem places a ton of pressure on the artist to help sell the story, but Ballerini is more than up to the challenge this time. This is not a technically-demanding song, but it requires a deft touch to keep the track from falling into generic Cobronavirus territory (the narrator is ostensibly drinking to get over a failed romance, but they seem to be using that as a shallow excuse to get wasted). Ballerini navigates this narrow waters by bringing a level of self-awareness to the delivery along the same lines as Jason Aldean’s “Any Old Barstool” (they know darn well they’re lying through their teeth), but where Aldean tried to maintain a serious facade to play up the depth of the problem, Ballerini leans into the silliness of the writing with her delivery, using her pseudo-serious denials to lighten the mood and signal to the audience that while she has an excuse to drink, she didn’t really need one. There’s a palpable sense of enjoyment and confidence throughout her performance (she’s determined to have a good time, and she appears to be succeeding), and the listener can’t help but vicariously enjoy the wine along with her. Let this be a lesson to other country music singers: If you’re going to make a pointless drinking song, don’t even bother to try to play in straightmake it fun instead!

The lyrics tell the tale of a narrator who is drowning their sorrows in alcohol to get over a breakup, and based on the fact that they’ve completely lost track on how much they’ve had (“there’s a hole in the bottle leaking all this wine”), their sorrows are pretty well drowned. Given all the similarities between this track and the many Cobronavirus songs I’ve shredded recently, why does this one work when the others didn’t?

  • For one thing, there’s actually a point to the narrator’s insobriety: They aren’t drinking for drinking’s sake, they’re here to forget an old flame and have a good time, similar to Lady Antebellum’s “Bartender” or Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks.” There’s an end goal here that suggests the behavior is temporary and done in moderation (in theory), as opposed to the pointless, open-ended invitation to drink yourself into a stupor on your typical Cobronavirus track.
  • Let’s be honest: The “hole in the bottle” hook falls so deep into mom-joke territory that it’s impossible to take this song seriously. While most Cobronavirus songs pitch getting drunk as a solution to all the world’s problems with a straight face, the narrator is clearly in on the joke here.
  • While the song itself is fairly short (even with the ‘information’ intro, it’s only two-and-a-half minutes long), I think this works to the song’s advantage: There isn’t a lot to the song beyond the hook/punch line, so keeping things short and to the point keeps the song from stretching the joke to thin and overstaying its welcome.

In short, we’re left with a concise, purposeful, tongue-in-cheek song that doesn’t give the listener any reason not to join the fun.

“Hole In The Bottle” succeeds where many recent drinking tracks fail because it identifies its goal (to be fun!) and focuses all of its efforts to accomplishing that goal. It doesn’t pitch alcohol as a cure-all for all of life’s ills, it doesn’t use its lack of pretense to demonstrate its superiority over others, and it’s doesn’t use drinking as an excuse for whatever stupid behavior may result afterwards. Instead, it offers upbeat production with some sizzle, writings that refuses to take itself seriously, and an upbeat, charismatic performance from Kelsea Ballerini that ties the whole thing together. I see this performing a lot better than “The Other Girl,” and while this won’t be the endearing song of our times, it’s a reminder that drinking songs aren’t inherently evil, so long as they are clear in their presentation, limited in scope, and above all deliver on their promise of a good time.

Now if only a few others artists would dump their current singles for better ones…

Rating: 7/10. It’s definitely worth your time.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini ft. Halsey, “The Other Girl”

Has country music lost Kelsea Ballerini?

Back when “Miss Me More” came out, I called the track “a shot across the bow of country music,” declaring that Ballerini “won’t hesitate to find greener pastures if the genre denies her the opportunity for success.” Country radio kingmakers don’t listen to me, however, and they may be paying the price: After “Homecoming Queen?”, the leadoff single for Ballerini’s third album Kelsea, stalled in the high teens and wound up with a disappointing #17 airplay peak, Ballerini and Black River responded by teaming up with Halsey (another young female singer who seems to be on the rise in the pop world) and dropping “The Other Girl,” a song whose pop sensibilities may be even stronger than “Miss Me More.” Ballerini’s pop pivot plot seems to have been set in motion, but there’s a flaw in her escape plan: This song isn’t very well-constructed, it frames the conversation as more of a competition than a commiseration, and generally leaves me wishing they’d have stuck it out with “Homecoming Queen?” a bit longer.

The most striking feature of the production here is how brazenly synthetic it is: There are almost no actual instruments here to speak of, and the producer doesn’t care who knows. The song opens with some unsettling sound effects and an underwater drum machine, and these combine with some darker synth tones to make up the bulk of the arrangement. (Some guitars add a few strums and whole notes in the background, and a piano tosses in a simple riff here and there, but that’s about it for real instruments.) There’s an overarching darkness and an incredibly cold and calculated feel to the mix (more stemming from the instrument tones than the chord structure), and the tone sits in an awkward place between a banger and a ballad, giving the track a real sense of tension at the two women size each other up. I don’t find it to be a great fit for the subject, as it casts the narrators in a darker light and makes them feel less sympathetic than in songs like Reba McEntire and Linda Davis’s “Does He Love You” or even Cam’s “Diane.” Finding yourself in such a scenario may drive you to some dark places (Side note: I did not expect Reba to blow up the freaking boat in that linked video), but taking such a tack leaves the audience with a conflicted feeling when it’s over, and no one seems to walk away clean, especially the producer.

Ballerini is an exceptional performer who really drove her point home when the anger was flowing freely on “Miss Me More,” but she struggles a bit with the understated annoyance of the narrator here. She sounds a lot better in her lower range than she did in “Homecoming Queen?” and neither her flow nor her power are really tested here, but instead of the side-eyed snark I would expect from the narrator in this situation, she comes across as passive-aggressive, pulling her punches rather than taking big swings. (There are some hints of insecurity in the writing, but you don’t feel it in the vocals—Ballerini’s delivery feels a little too matter-of-fact at times.) As for Halsey, she projects a bit more of a sultry temptress with her voice, but even that feels more muted than it should be, and the two artists mostly just stare each other down from across the room rather than confront each other. The performances are caught somewhere between the camaraderie of “Diane” and the animosity of “Fist City,” and don’t wind up am impactful as either one in the end.

The lyrics seem to be caught as a crossroads, unsure of which fork in the road to take. For example, the narrators spend most of the time imagining the other person in their mind, but their tone alternates between being complementary (“everything you wear fits you just right,” “I bet you’re smart,” “I bet you’re cool”) to taking shots at one another (“I bet you’re more promiscuous than I”). The whole premise of the song is try to differentiate themselves and decide who “the other girl” is, but at the same time the occasionally find common ground (“Are you mad? Me too!”) The two speakers here honestly don’t know what to make of each other, and while their complements to the other person perhaps represent some insecurity in the speaker, the writing doesn’t really explore this, and instead leaves the pair in this awkward situation. Beyond the “scarlet letter” line, I wouldn’t call anything terribly novel or clever herethe statements are fairly boilerplate (and they honestly veer a bit too close to laundry-list territory for my liking). It’s the sort of inconclusive track that leaves the listener mostly confused when it’s finished, but doesn’t interest them enough to stay engaged and solve whatever mystery is present.

“The Other Girl” feels like a song that was constructed to make a big splash, but only generates a few ripples on the surface in the end. There just doesn’t seem to be a coherent plan for what to do with the track: The production frames it as a confrontation, the vocals try to keep things chill, and the lyrics can’t make up their mind just where to go with this whole thing. Kelsea Ballerini and Halsey bring some decent star power to the table, but this isn’t the break-glass single that Ballerini needs to launch herself out of the country orbit and into the pop galaxy. For now, it appears the reluctant standoff/partnership between her and country radio will continue, with neither side especially happy with the arrangement. In truth, with newer artists like Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett suddenly surging, Ballerini is at risk of becoming “The Other Girl” herself.

Rating: 5/10. I wouldn’t go out of your way for this one.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Homecoming Queen?”

I like that Kelsea Ballerini is getting more chances to be real, but I wish I felt this track more than I do.

After “I Hate Love Songs” sputtered out as #25, “Miss Me More” was a solid rebound for Ballerini, as it scored a Mediabase #1/Billboard #2 and earned a prominent place on my best-song list for 2018. The song’s lengthy chart run, however, exceeded the expiration date for Ballerini’s sophomore album Unapologetically, moving her and Black River to close the door on the disc and start working on the only-slightly-mysterious “KB3” project. The first piece of the secret was revealed last week with the release of the debut single “Homecoming Queen?” and…honestly, I wanted to like this one a lot more than I actually do. It’s a suitably-serious song reminding us that there are cracks in the facade of “perfect” people (and telling said people that life doesn’t end when that mask comes off), but it lacks the raw power of “Miss Me More” and doesn’t hit the listener nearly as hard as it hoped to.

The production starts out promising, leaning mostly on an acoustic guitar and eventually a synthetic percussion line that’s so basic and minimal that they might as well have just left it out entirely. It’s about as restrained and organic as we’ve ever heard a Ballerini single, but eventually some spacious electric guitars jump in (and then some watery effects get smeared across them on the second chorus), and then some choral “ooh-oohs” get tossed in for the bridge solo, and the mix loses its magic and starts to feel overproduced. The gradual increase in the complexity and noise level was a really bad decision: It does nothing to add energy or provide a groove for the song (not that either one was warranted anyway), and it detracts from (and even partially obscures) the message that the lyrics are trying to convey. Had the producer stuck with the minimalist acoustic approach, I think this would have been a lot more powerful; instead, it’s just kind of there, and doesn’t entice the listener to pay attention.

The subject matter may fit well with Ballerini’s experience, but this song is an awkward fit for her as an artist. For one thing, the key is a bit too low, putting her dangerously close to the bottom of her range and sapping some of her power and tone (luckily, the song is deliberately low-powered to signal vulnerability and anxiety). The bigger issue, however, is the use of the “homecoming queen” to signal that it’s okay to not be perfect and to let people see the real you. Your stereotypical popular, pompous young lady isn’t the most sympathetic character in pop culture (in fact, they’re usually the villain: see Maddie & Tae’s “Sierra” or the existence of Diamond Tiara), and while Ballerini can get us halfway there and at least keep the character from being unlikeable, she can’t quite move the audience to feel for her plight. Topics like this are usually approached from a lower rung on the social ladder, and for as charismatic and as good a performer as Ballerini is, this song asks a bit too much of her power, and she can’t quite stick the landing.

The lyrics here have the narrator probing the life of a nameless “homecoming queen,” wondering if life is as rosy as it seems from the outside and letting them know that showing their real self wouldn’t be the end of the world. It’s an admirable sentiment, and I appreciate the attempt to change things up by approaching the subject from a top-down perspective instead of from the bottom up (even if, as I mentioned before, I don’t think it really works). Unfortunately, the song feels artificially short to me (another verse or even a bridge could have fleshed out the story a bit), and there aren’t enough details here to set the scene (granted, I’m not really the target demographic here). The questions asked and advice offered feel more generic than insightful (“just be yourself!”), and the exchange doesn’t carry the weight that it’s aiming for. Ultimately, there’s little here to make the listener remember the conversation beyond the next song.

I just don’t feel “Homecoming Queen?” the way I did “Miss Me More,” and while it’s not a bad track by any means, it still feels like a significant downgrade following its predecessor. The production oversells the story, the writing undersells it, and Kelsea Ballerini doesn’t sell it much at all. I’ll still take this over the majority of songs currently at radio, but I feel like there’s a really good song buried here, and I’m sad that Ballerini and her team weren’t able to find it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s still worth a spin or two to see what you think.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Miss Me More”

This isn’t just a song—it’s a shot across the bow of country music.

At this point, the genre’s allergy to female artists is well-known and well-documented, as radio only seems to make room for one or two of them at a time. As Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert started to get cycled off the airwaves, Kelsea Ballerini seemed to be the heir to their throne, scoring three No. 1 hits off of her debut album and reaching the top of the heap again with “Legends” from her follow-up album Unapologetically. However, after “I Hate Love Songs” hit a wall and had its plug pulled at #25, I started wondering if country music had already moved on from Ballerini to make room for another artist (Maren Morris? Carly Pearce?). The response from Ballerini’s camp, however, was striking: Not only does she have a fresh new collaboration with the Chainsmokers (“This Feeling,” with is surprisingly listenable for a Chainsmokers song), but her official single “Miss Me More”feels like a declaration that country music needs her a lot than she needs it. It’s an angry kiss-off/empowerment anthem with more than a little meta-commentary between the lines, and while you may call the effort “pop” or “misguided,” I’d call it one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

The tone change is apparent from the start: This is a very synthetic arrangement, and nothing like the light, bubblegum pop-country mixes Ballerini has become known for. There are a few real instruments here (a cello on the bridge, a mandolin-like instrument near the end, and an amplified acoustic guitar helping to carry the melody), but the most prominent sounds here are the spacious synths and methodical drum machine that form the mix’s foundation and give it an unexpectedly good groove. (It’s the sort of sound that wouldn’t feel out-of-place on pop radio, which might have been the point…) With the darker instrument tones and an almost exclusive reliance on minor chords, the song has a serious vibe with some barely-controlled anger behind it, complementing the tone of the writing perfectly. I haven’t heard negative energy deployed this effectively since Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” but while that song features dangerous love, “Miss Me More” just feels dangerous period (think “XO” from Ballerini’s debut album times fifty), driving’s the narrator message home with an aural sledgehammer.

Those of you who only know Ballerini for lightweight fare like “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy” are in for a surprise: She is not happy on “Miss Me More,” delivering her lines in a cold-yet-calm tone with just enough of an edge to let you know she’s boiling underneath the surface. The song keeps her stuck in the lower end of her range, but she shrugs off the constraint and does a great job maintaining her vocal tone and power throughout the entire track. It’s the attitude and conviction of the narrator that sells this track, however, and Ballerini plays the role of the I’m-better-off-without-you protagonist with Lambert-esque aplomb. (In fact, she’s so believable that I’m wondering if we should be concerned about her real-life relationship with Morgan Evans.) While Ballerini has already demonstrated this sort of versatility and skill on her album cuts, it’s nice to see Black River let her do it on an actual single release for a change.

It’s also time to give Ballerini credit for being an strong songwriter, because she seems to be improving with every single. The narrator here is reflecting on how a failed relationship had changed her in way she did not entirely enjoy, and reveling in the fact that she’s better off without the other person (hence the hook “I thought I’d miss you/But I miss me more”). While the clever turns of phrase are a less numerous here than on “I Hate Love Songs” (outside of the above-average hook), both the level and novelty of detail remain, as the narrator brings up even small changes that I never would have thought of (lipstick shades, music tastes, and my personal favorite: Not wearing high heels “’cause I couldn’t be taller than you”). There’s a real “I am woman, hear me roar” feel to the lyrics, as the narrator reasserts her independence and allows themselves to enjoy who they are for what they are, regardless of what anyone else says.

The more interesting question: Who exactly does she mean by “anyone else”? The song is theoretically targeted at a controlling ex-lover, but you don’t have to squint too hard to see that this could be a firebomb aimed at the kingmakers of country radio. Nashville is famous for pushing acts to sing and act a certain way (especially female acts), but Ballerini’s crossover appeal gives her a lot more leverage than other artists, and this song suggests that she’s willing to use it. Pop radio has substantially fewer misgivings about putting women on the airwaves, and after “I Hate Love Songs” faltered, Ballerini is sending a pointed message to country radio: She can jump genres anytime she wants, and it’ll be country music that will “miss her more.” Don’t be surprised if this song picks up considerable pop airplay and makes a strong impression on the Hot 100.

“Miss Me More” is a statement of power from Kelsea Ballerini, declaring that no man (and potentially no genre) is going to keep her from being her true self. With suitably-serious production, dual-purpose writing, and a attitude-filled vocal performance, this is (hopefully) the song that dispels Ballerini’s pop princess image and earns her the top-tier performer credit she deserves. Country radio may well turn up their collective nose at it, but they do so at their own peril: Ballerini is working from the Taylor Swift playbook now, and won’t hesitate to find greener pastures if the genre denies her the opportunity for success.

Rating: 9/10. Enjoy her work now, because she may not hang around this backwater genre for much longer.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “I Hate Love Songs”

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
—Alfred Tennyson, 1835

In the spring Kelsea Ballerini’s fancy lightly turns to ripping tired romantic clichés to shreds.
—Me, 2018

I tend to be more bullish on Kelsea Ballerini than most people because on her debut album, she demonstrated a knack for both writing and performing deeper, more-personal tracks than most singers in the genre. However, outside of the excellent “Peter Pan,” these tracks were relegated to being album cuts, passed over for fluffier songs like “Dibs” and “Yeah Boy” to let her label present her as the Disney princess of country music. We appeared to be getting more of the same with “Legends,” the leadoff track from her sophomore album Unapologetically, but her latest single “I Hate Love Songs” makes a refreshing (and enjoyable) effort to showcase her wit and her personality, all while blowing a raspberry at the traditional, unimaginative ways people talk about romance.

The production stumbles in the beginning by running everything through a watery filter so thick you’d think that the band was playing underwater, but what eventually emerges from the depths is a waltz-time, piano/percussion-driven ballad with a relaxed, retro, and even romantic vibe. (An electric guitar eventually appears to provide a simple bridge solo, and an organ and steel guitar provide some atmosphere despite drowning in the background.) The mix pits a number of lighter and darker tones against one another, complementing the writing by highlighting the narrator’s struggle between wanting to express her feelings and recoiling at the “usual” ways of doing so. It may not have the energy of a “Sway” or even a “Last Man Standing,” but it’s got enough of a groove to get you moving, and is so easy on the ears that it’s probably going to end up on every wedding playlist you hear for the next six months.

For someone who’s made a habit of trading on conventional romantic songs up to this point, Ballerini does a nice job pivoting to a narrator who can’t stand them and making the track sound believable. Her flow is surprisingly stiff for a song this slow, but her voice also maintains a surprising amount of tone despite the song mostly trapping her in her lower range (I would call it “effectively raspy,” much like Dierks Bentley) and her delivery feels both earnest and effortless. She’s a perfect fit for the snarky-but-sentimental speaker, and her little improvisations are a nice touch (you can just picture her shrugging when she admits she doesn’t know her anniversary and tosses in a “whoops” at the end of the line). Overall, it’s yet another outstanding effort from one of the genre’s leading ladies.

The lyrics are some of the wittiest I’ve heard in a country song for quite some time, as the narrator tries to find a way to express their love for their partner without singing them a sappy song. I have to admit, I got a real kick out of listening to Ballerini take a verbal sledgehammer to all the corny, overused romantic expressions we’ve all heard a million times over the years. This is usually done by pointing out the absurbity behind the symbol’s literal meaning: “Violets are purple, not blue,” “you’d die if your heart really skipped,” “roses just die in a week,” etc. (That last one is my favorite because it made me think of Brad Paisley’s hilarious “Flowers.”) There’s more than a bit of irony in the fact that this is essentially a love song about hating love songs, but at least the narrator is upfront about the issue and attempts to define their love by way of contrasting it to everyone else’s methods of expression. It’s a lot like Easton Corbin’s “A Girl Like You” in that it manages to use the common language of a subject while also expressing its revulsion towards it.

Overall, “I Hate Love Songs” is a pretty great love song that gives mainstream radio a more-complete picture of Kelsea Ballerini’s talents. Her label may continue to market her as a country music princess, but if she releases more songs like this, she’ll be a country music queen before too long.

Rating: 7/10. Maybe I’ll check out Unapologetically after all…

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Legends”

There’s a fine line between a song being “effectively vague” and “just plain confusing.” Unfortunately for Kelsea Ballerini, “Legends” falls on the wrong side of this line.

Ballerini exploded onto the country music scene in 2015 with her debut album The First Time, which would have received my “Album Of The Year” award had I been running a blog at the time. Despite Black River Entertainment’s insistence on marketing Ballerini as a pop princess and releasing fluffy singles like “Dibs” and “Love Me Like You Mean It,” The First Time also featured deep cuts that demonstrated Ballerini’s ability to write and perform darker, more-serious material (the title track, “Secondhand Smoke,” and the excellent “Peter Pan”). Now, however, there seems to be a question about which of these directions to follow, as “Legends,” the leadoff single for Ballerini’s sophomore album, seems to try to split the difference between lighter and darker topics, and ultimately ends up covering neither satisfactorily.

Unlike a lot of songs on the radio today, the production here is anchored mostly by a piano, with an electric guitar relegated to background duty save for the a solo on the bridge. The percussion doesn’t jump into the song immediately and starts with a restrained drum machine, but eventually switches to a prominent (real) drum set on the first chorus. The full mix gives off the vibe of a strong, uplifting power anthem (it makes me think of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” for some reason), but the constant use of minor chords muddle this feeling and introduce enough darkness into the tune to make you wonder if the song is supposed to a happy reflection, a sad remembrance, or both.

These mixed messages extend to the writing as well, which doesn’t seem as sharp overall as Ballerini’s prior work. On one hand, saying “loving you baby, it was heaven” indicates that the song is about two people who shared a fantastic relationship long ago, but saying “we didn’t do it for the fame or the glory” makes no sense in that context—outside of shameless gold diggers, who gets into a relationship for fame or glory? It starts to sound like the pairing was a business relationship, as if they were co-founders of a rock band that struck it big, rather than a romantic one. The lyrics also include some unnecessarily-awkward phrases (“blood, sweat, and heartbeats?” Really?), and they focus completely on the positive aspects of the relationship without ever talking about what ended it (Death? Infidelity? Two young people just growing apart?). While leaving songs intentionally vague so that they apply to as many situations (and connect with as many people) as possible is a oft-used and effective songwriting strategy (in fact, Ballerini cites the idea when talking about the song), they need at least a basic framework to set the scene, and “Legends” not only lacks that framework, the few bits and pieces that we get are contradictory and confusing. If the listener does not have a memory that they can easily relate the song to, they aren’t able to connect with the song at all.

To her credit, Ballerini delivers a solid performance here that demonstrates both her abilities and her effortless charisma. The song challenges her a bit more than her past singles by stress-testing her range (bouncing from her lower ranges to her soprano within a single verse), but she handles it well, while also showing off her impressive flow when called upon. While she’s held back by the mixed signals from both the production and the writing, Ballerini strikes an unequivocally positive tone with her delivery, focusing on the good times without giving what might have led to the relationship’s downfall a second thought. This is a feel-good song for Ballerini, and it’s a shame that the rest of the song waffles on this idea instead of taking a stand.

Overall, “Legends” is a confusing track that doesn’t quite connect with the listener the way it wants to, and instead leaves them unsure how to feel when it’s over. It doesn’t measure up to the tracks we saw on The First Time, and despite Ballerini’s vocal performance, it raises the specter of a sophomore slump with her upcoming album. While her future remains bright, I’m guessing that when historians discuss Ballerini’s own legend in years to come, “Legends” won’t rate much of a mention.

Rating: 5/10. You aren’t missing much here.

Song Review: Kelsea Ballerini, “Yeah Boy”

That whistle you hear off in the distance? That’s the Kelsea Ballerini hype train, and it’s been speeding across the land since Ballerini exploded onto the country music scene last year. Her debut album The First Time saw its first three singles all top the country charts, and with “Yeah Boy” selected as single No. 4, I don’t see this train slowing down anytime soon.

The production maintains a light, breezy feel throughout the entire song, and is surprisingly cohesive considering the eclectic choice of instruments. The banjo is especially impressive here—it gives the song an acoustic feel despite the synthetic instruments around here, and blends surprisingly well with the restrained drum machine that backs the track.

Lyrically, there’s nothing too deep here: A girl sees a boy she likes, and wants to spend some time with him. Ballerini delivers a solid vocal performance, and her smooth, lighthearted delivery is a perfect match for the vibe of the track. Unlike Justin Moore, she actually sounds like she’s enjoying herself on the song!

My biggest critique with “Yeah Boy” has nothing to do with the song itself—rather, it’s the fact that her label releases nothing but lightweight girl-wants-boy tracks as singles (the brilliantly-written “Peter Pan” being the lone exception). As good as this track is, it’s almost indistinguishable from prior singles “Dibs” and “Love Me Like You Mean It.” I get that these tracks play well with Ballerini’s target audience, but they’ve also earned her an undeserved reputation among country music traditionalists as a Disneyfied pop princess who doesn’t belong in the genre. While The First Time has plenty of examples that show that Ballerini has the chops as both a singer and songwriter to handle more-substantive material (the title track, “Stilettos,” “Secondhand Smoke,” etc.), only “Peter Pan” will ever get to see the light of day. Come on, Black River, step up your game!

Overall, this is a great song, and one that will keep the Ballerini hype train  going at full speed. I just hope her label takes a few more chances with the  single selections on her next album, and showcases the full range of Ballerini’s talent.

Rating: 8/10. I recommend picking up the entire album—had I started this blog in 2015, The First Time would have been my Album of the Year.