Song Review: Maren Morris, “Circles Around This Town”

“Writing circles around this town” is a low bar to clear these days, but at least Maren Morris is trying.

I tend to be a contrarian when it comes to Morris’s work: I’m usually ambivalent about her best-performing songs, but the ones I like don’t seem to do that well. Case in point: I was bored by “The Bones” and intrigued by “To Hell & Back,” so naturally the latter song limped to a #32 airplay peak while the former nearly cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Morris spent 2021 teaming up with husband Ryan Hurd on “Chasing After You,” but she’s back with her own song this year with the leadoff single for upcoming album Humble Quest, “Circles Around This Town.” It doesn’t stray too far from the standard formula in its sound, but the angle of the writing is different and interesting enough to make it a decent listen, which means it falls in between her last two solo singles and I have no idea how it’ll perform on the charts.

The production here is a bit of a mixed bag, and seems to achieve whatever success it gets in spite of itself. The instruments are mostly what you’d expect from a country song (the mandolin is the only item that come close to qualifying as a surprise), and they have an annoying habit of running together on the chourses and turning into an indistinguishable wall of noise (the video claims there’s a steel guitar in the mix somewhere, but good luck finding it). Still, there’s a roughness to the instruments on the verses that instantly identifies this as a Morris track (the snare texture is particularly distinct), and the brightness of the mandolin makes it the one instrument that can cut through the sonic wall and announce its presence. The vibe here is an interesting one: While the overall tone is neutral and invites reflection of the narrator’s journey, the mandolin and acoustic guitar give the sound a a hint of optimism, suggesting that the narrator has grown comfortable with the struggle and content with their position, and they have no regrets over the journey. It’s a mix that feels like it shouldn’t work and yet somehow does, complementing the story without ever getting in its way.

When you’re trying to tell your own story like Morris does here, the key to success is believability: You don’t have to tell the exact truth (or at least not your truth), but do listeners actually buy what you’re trying to sell? Morris already has one of the more distinct voices in the genre and doesn’t run into any technical issues here, and she passes the believability test because a) she’s got enough charisma in her delivery to come across as trustworthy, and b) there’s enough verifiable evidence included in the song to back her up. Even beyond the specific songs that are cited (“My Church,” “80s Mercedes”), Morris invites you to scrutinize her discography here, and while I’m not always impressed with her work (see: “Rich”), her songs do tend to be a little different than others, and more recently they feel a bit deeper too (see: “To Hell & Back”). In turn, her vocals and her background lead you believe the rest of her claims, from the small (coming to town in a Montero with no A/C) to the big (she’s really tried to distinguish herself from other artists, and has struggled to compete with them at times). It’s a solid effort and a well-constructed offering from Morris, and I’m hoping she continues this trend with her third album.

The writing here is mostly a personal tale about the struggle of getting started in Nashville, which isn’t always the most novel topic (we heard hints of this in Thanos’s “Doin’ This” earlier this week), but what stand out in the angle from which the song approaches the topic. Most songs in this vein focus on the struggle of the performing artist: We hear mostly about the dive bars and tip jars and all the perils of performing. This song, in contrast, is about the battle of the songwriter: How do you write a song that stands out amidst a sea of writers in Nashville, and how do you convince someone with the power to make things happen to take a chance on you? The visuals here avoid the usual locations (heck, this might be the first song I’ve ever heard reference apartment security deposits), and the song works to drive home how long it takes you to be an overnight success (“a couple hundred songs” in this case). The line that resonates with me the most was about “trying to compete with everybody else’s ones that got away”: I’ve already ranted about how every song talks about the same stuff nowadays, and trying to find a way to differentiate your take on a topic that’s already oversaturated and forces you to use the same ten buzzwords as the rest of the field must be a nightmare for modern writers. (Honestly, it feels like a lot of people have just given up and are now just leaning in to the bland sameness, hoping to blend in enough to sneak onto the radio without anyone noticing.) It’s something that Morris has been dealing with for a while, and although she’s hasn’t always succeeded in doing so, she does a decent job of doing so here.

“Circles Around This Town” is a good example of how to make a song stand out in a crowded field: Try to take a different approach to a common topic, bring in some things that people don’t often hear about, and use your sound and your vocals to bring some freshness and credibility to the table. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but it’s a solid, well-executed effort with hooks in both the production and writing to catch your attention, as Maren Morris does a nice job drawing the audience in with her performance. It’s a decent return from last year’s solo hiatus, and I’m hoping that she can write a few more circles around Nashville going forward.

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

Song Review: Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You”

I’m confused: Did anyone actually look at this song before they went and recorded it?

Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris married back in 2018, but nobody has ever confused them for a Nashville power couple. Sure, Morris has had some big hits like “The Middle” and “The Bones,” but her single releases are pretty inconsistent (her last one “To Hell And Back” only made it to #32 on Billboard’s airplay chart), and Hurd has only managed to be consistently mediocre (his #22 single “To A T” remains his best showing, and “Every Other Memory” barely cracked the top fifty). Now, the pair has teamed up for a new single “Chasing After You,” and it’s about as bad of a clash of ideas as I’ve seen in a long time: The singers and the producer clearly went into the studio thinking “sensual love ballad,” so why in the world are they recording a song about an on-again, off-again romance that will never work out? Instead of trotting out the cheesy clichés and doing their best Tim & Faith impression, Hurd and Morris leave the listener feeling mostly confused, wondering why the heck they chose to deliver such a song in such a way.

On its face, I don’t actually mind the production that much—I just find it to be an incredibly awkward fit for the song’s subject matter. There isn’t a whole lot to this arrangement: It’s a simple electric guitar backed by a deep, sparse drum machine and wrapped up in some spacious synthesizers (eventually a real drum set joins in on the first chorus). It’s lacks instrument diversity and the riffs are mind-numbingly simple, but the slower tempo and deeper guitar and drum tones actually do a decent job of creating a sensual atmosphere (this sounds far more sexy than most of the attempted country sex jams I’ve heard over the last few years). The problem is there really isn’t anything sexy about the song: Sure, the narrators engage in some implied “physical activity,” but the crux of the song is that the relationship never holds up and the pair eventually separates, and there’s nothing sexy or romantic about a Groundhog Day-like breakup loop. It’s almost as if the song is trying to convince the listener to ignore the writing and get lost in the sound, but the twist on the chorus is impossible to ignore, and it leaves the listener confused about what the song is trying to say. It feels like the producer and the writers are working as cross-purposes here, and it leaves the listener feeling very little at all in the end.

The mismatch between the sound and the subject matter puts Hurd and Morris in a tough spot, and while both decide to throw their weight behind the producer, it’s still not enough to paper over the song’s inherent conflict. Hurd is clearly the weaker of the two artists here: He’s a product of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line (stick anybody else behind the mic, and this song sounds the exact same), and his soundalike voice and limited charisma do little to convey the passion within the sound. Morris’s voice is both more distinct and more emotive, but her role is a bit more limited (she’s the one always stuck on harmony duty when the pair sings together), and she doesn’t bring a lot of power to the table on this track, causing her to be drowned out by the added instrumentation on the second verse. I think the pair has some decent vocal chemistry and could actually make a romantic power ballad work, but this isn’t that kind of song, and trying to turn it into that song takes a tool on both their believability and their ability to transmit their feelings to the audience. It’s not a great look for anyone involved, and unlike the narrators, the listener is more than ready to move on after hearing this track.

The writing here tells the sad story of a couple who just can’t seem to find the magic formula for love, but can’t seem to stop looking for it. I’ve never been a fan of these kinds of songs, because it paints the speakers in a negative light: If the relationship has crashed and burned so many times, why don’t you show some self-control, stop beating a dead horse, and move on? Much like the relationship, the story never progresses either: We get a drunken night together, a few TL;DR statements about how the relationship cycles, and some lines about how the narrators can’t stay apart because “it feels too good” (which implies that the attraction is purely physical and not based on any meaningful feelings). It would be different if the narrators were doing something—anything—to change the outcome each time, but we get no indication that they do anything but drink and make out. (Even the “guess I love chasing after you” hook feels born of resignation more than anything else.) The whole thing make the song feel incredibly pointless: The narrator’s aren’t happy with the on-again, off-again status quo, but they’re too comfortable with it to do something about it, and thus they’re trapped in an unappealing cycle that the audience would rather avoid altogether.

“Chasing After You” is a song that is unsure of its true purpose in life, and when it tries to be two separate things, it ends up being neither of them. The writing is an uninteresting tale of woe from two people who aren’t bothered enough to change the ending, the production is more suitable for a sex jam than a melancholy song like this one, and Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd fail to make chicken salad out of the chicken you-know-what they’re left with. It’s the sort of unengaging track that’s only suitable for background noise, and I’m not sure even Morris’s star power is enough to make this one leave a mark on the airwaves. I think the there’s enough chemistry shown off here that the couple should try this trick again, but only if they learn from the mistakes of the protagonists here and make the changes necessary (stronger material and a more-consistent approach from everyone involved) to do better next time.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go chasing after this one.

Song Review: Maren Morris, “To Hell & Back”

News flash: The women of country music killed it in 2019, and they’re still killing it in 2020.

As a title, “To Hell & Back” might be the perfect summation of Maren Morris’s career up to this point: She’s been accused of being everything that’s both right and wrong with modern country music, and has taken a ton of flak for her pop-tinged style even as she’s racked up several #1 singles (including her previous release “GIRL”) and even a bit of critical acclaim. While I’ve never been Morris’s biggest fan, she’s definitely had her moments over the last few years, and might be line for another one with “To Hell & Back,” the third single from her GIRL album. It’s a well-written, well-executed track exploring the dichotomy between our self-image and how others perceive us, with enough detail and wordplay to allow the listener to truly experience the track.

The production is probably the weakest part of the song, as its atmosphere doesn’t quite capture the balance between light and darkness that the song needs. In truth, the most noticeable part of the arrangement are the audio effects: The opening acoustic guitar is mostly left alone, but the percussion starts off underwater and the other background instruments (keyboard, steel and electric guitars) sound like they’re all encased in amber. (And that’s not even counting Morris’s standard echoey vocal effects.) “Flattening the curve” might be the goal of our current social distancing practices, but they don’t suit this song at all: The vibe here is generally dim across the board, when a bit more variability between brighter and darker tones would set up a better contrast between the views of the narrator and their significant other. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but by going with a more even-keel approach, the production misses an opportunity to really synergize with the writing, and instead blunt the impact of the lyrics a bit. The song is strong enough in other areas to overcome this issue, but it’s an unforced error that could have been avoided.

For her part, Morris doesn’t reflect the peaks and valleys of the writing terribly well either, but she does a great job capturing the narrator’s disbelief and gratefulness about the situation. The song isn’t stressful from a technical perspective, and Morris has more than enough chops to cover the tune without breaking a sweat. What sets her apart here is her unexpectedly-solid turn in the narrator’s role: There’s a real feeling of surprise and confusion in her voice, and while she lets herself celebrate a bit on the chorus by powering into her voice’s upper register, there’s also a real sense of ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ in her delivery. The audience picks up on the narrator’s insecurity and lack of self-esteem almost immediately, triggering a sympathetic reflex and giving us a sense that we’re seeing the true face of the narrator and not the socially-acceptable mask they’re hiding behind. The writing deserves a fair share of the credit as well, but it’s Morris that has to go out and sell this story, and she does some excellent sales work here.

The writing is my favorite part about “To Hell And Back,” primarily for two reasons:

  • It feels like I’m complaining about a lack of detail in half the songs I review, which don’t allow the listener to visualize the scene and get drawn into the story. There’s no such problem here: From the opener “Smoke was comin’ off my jacket,” the song drops some seriously vivid lines that give the listener some clear and memorable mental imagery (the frayed wings and black halo of the chorus are my personal favorites). It’s not just visuals either: Things like “you didn’t think I needed saving/changing” help give us a sense of the narrator’s state of mind, most notably the difference between how they picture themselves and what the other person apparently sees.
  • While I don’t like the hook itself (when you say “Your kind of heaven’s been to Hell and back,” I have no idea what that really means), but I like how the song goes all in on the angelic and demonic imagery, using these visuals as a common thread that ties the song together and sets up the stark dichotomy (the narrator is an angel to their partner and a devil to themselves) that the production mostly ignores. The pearl/pressure line may be reheated leftovers, but there’s a fair bit of wit used to play off of what could come off as stock images (the wings, the halo, the buried skeletons, etc.).
  • Finally, there’s some serious narrator vulnerability here that I haven’t heard in a country song since Jimmie Allen’s “Best Shot.” The narrator never comes out and says they hate themselves, but instead reveals their true feelings through their partner’s reaction to the narrator’s perceived faults. It’s a nice bit of “show, don’t tell” wordplay that adds more weight and believability to the story.

In short, the writing gives us a front-row seat to the action, and uses its theme and hook well to accentuate the viewpoint differences and (most importantly) stand out from its peers on the airwaves. There’s some real songcraft here that has been missing from some tracks I’ve reviewed recently, and it’s a welcome relief to hear it.

“To Hell & Back” is a meaningful and earnest love story, a nice change of pace from all the Boyfriend country lovery-dovey tales clogging up the radio, and a declaration from Maren Morris that if you haven’t been taking her seriously, you’d better start doing so. The production is a bit lukewarm, but the vocals and especially the writing do a great job telling and selling the tale of someone who just can’t believe love has come their way. It’s a step up from “GIRL” (and a giant leap up from junk like “Rich”), and it’s another datapoint against a Nashville development system that seems to have five “Payton Jon Jameson Johnsons” for every singer like Morris on the charts. Female singers continue to run laps around their male counterparts in this genre, and with artists like Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett starting to make some noise, maybe Music City is finally taking notice.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Maren Morris, “The Bones”

I feel like this song contradicts its own conclusion: Its bones are okay, but everything else isn’t.

At this point, I have absolutely no idea what to make of Maren Morris’s career. Since her debut in 2016, she’s been considered both an overachiever and an underachiever, she’s been both hailed and reviled by the country critical community, and she has an impressive Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100, but only two Billboard airplay No. 1s to go along with it. While her last single “GIRL” managed to reach the airplay pinnacle, its rise was fairly nondescript, and it was overshadowed by massive hits like “God’s Country” (ugh) and “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” It seems to me like Morris is in need of another needle-moving song like “My Church,” something that will get people’s attention and get her name back in the country music conversation. Unfortunately, her latest release “The Bones” is not that song: It’s a placid, boring track with a glaring sound/subject mismatch, and isn’t going to turn many heads on the radio.

Whoever was responsible for the production on this song needs to have their head examined, because they made this thing sound like a cut-rate sex jam instead of a solid statement of devotion. The slick-yet-choppy electric guitar and the prominent clap and snap tracks severely oversell the sensual mood of the writing (which isn’t sensual at all), and the dark instrument tones and occasional minor chords give the song feel pessimistic, almost ominous feel (which is the exact opposite of the narrator’s feelings). The whole thing ends up sounding incredibly generic, and the simple riffs and slower, deliberate tempo generate zero energy and leave the song to trudge lifelessly from start to finish. It’s the sort of sound that’s really hard to review because it just can’t keep your attention, and you have to run it back ten times because your mind keeps wandering away to more interesting subjects.

Morris’s performance here isn’t anything to write to home about either, mostly because she doesn’t capture the depth of the narrator’s feelings or transmit them to the audience. Her range and flow are as decent as they’ve ever been, but the “tired, weary quality” of her vocals I mentioned in my “GIRL” review works against her on this track. While it may reflect the hard times the narrator and their partner have survived, it doesn’t project any confidence that the feelings between them were remain strong (despite the lyrics explicitly declaring that they will). In fact, Morris’s flat, disinterested delivery doesn’t really project anything at all, making the writing’s sentiments feel shallow and disingenuous. Where the production gives you the wrong idea about the song, Morris gives you no idea at all, and it’s tough to tell which is the worse outcome.

In general, the writing isn’t too bad: The narrator and their partner have weathered an unspecified metaphorical storm, and are convinced that the foundation of their relationship is so strong that nothing could ever shake it. The sentiment and commitment feel genuine, and while not terribly novel, the “love as a house” metaphor is well-executed and mostly works (except I can’t stand “the bones” hook, which is apparently a real-estate term for quality construction that I had to look up on Google to make sure it was actually a thing). I kind of wish we got more details about exactly what the unspecified hard times were, but the emotions run deep enough to give you a real sense of optimism about the relationship, even if nothing else about the song shares that feeling. It’s been a while since we’ve gotten a “love that survives the tough times” track, and it’s a shame that the other pieces of the song can’t help elevate it.

I feel like the bones of “The Bones” are decent, but everything around them crumbles to dust under scrutiny. The writing is solid if not spectacular, but it’s undercut by poor production choices and a mediocre performance from Maren Morris herself. In the end, it’s a middle-of-the-road love song that doesn’t stick in your head for very wrong, and it likely means that the strange, inexplicable saga of Morris’s career will continue to be strange and inexplicable for a while longer.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Sheryl Crow ft. Stevie Nicks And Maren Morris, “Prove You Wrong”

If you’re going to jump on this whole 90s revival trend, you might as well go all in.

Riddle me this, Batman: What happens when you combine the return of traditional sounds to country radio, a wave of nostalgia for everything the 1990s had to offer, and the time-honored tradition of artists from other genres “going country”? One possible answer is Sheryl Crow’s new song from her upcoming Thread album, “Prove You Wrong.” Crow has always been one of those amorphous artists that could comfortably slot into five or six different genres, and though she hasn’t been relevant from a chart perspective since the early 2000s, with artists like George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba McEntire recently jumping back into the game, Crow’s foray back onto the airwaves can’t been considered a complete surprise. What is surprising, however, is Crow’s “go big or go home” approach, as the collection of talent she assembled for this track (in addition to featuring rock legend Stevie Nicks and current country star Maren Morris, guitar wizards Joe Walsh and Vince Gill are also included in the band) is nothing short of astounding. For all the assembled talent, however, the song feels like a carbon copy of the last song I reviewed, Trisha Yearwood’s “Every Girl In This Town”: energizing yet bland production, solid yet indistinguishable vocals, and writing that feels shallow, incomplete, and unworthy of being performed by such acclaimed artists.

The production gets off on the right foot with a lively acoustic guitar and a sudden shot of volume to deliver some instant energy, but it never really moves beyond that as the song progresses. The electric guitars and drums that jump in certainly maintain the bright, empowering feel of the mix, but it also comes across as equal parts generic and uninspired: You mean to tell me that with players on the level of Walsh and Gill in your studio, the best you could come up with was minimal in-verse riffs and a simple, heard-it-a-million-times before post-bridge solo (to say nothing of the empty space left on the pre-bridge solo)? There’s enough optimism and swagger present to get the audience caught up in the moment, but by the end the whole things feel like empty sonic calories, and just doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from its competition. It’s a fun time for a few minutes, but don’t expect the good vibes to stretch much beyond the end of the song.

Featuring three different vocalists, especially vocalists with the pedigree of Crow and Nicks, seems like the perfect way to make the song stand out from the rest of the crowd. The problem (and maybe this is because I am barely familiar with Crow’s work and not familiar at all with Nicks’s) is that all three vocalists end up sounding the exact same here, to the point where I have absolutely no clue who’s singing which verse. On the plus side, all three lead singers have enough technical skill to handle the range, flow, and power demands of the track, and they’ve all got enough charisma and earnestness to own the narrator’s role and convince the listener that they’re really as confident in their rebounding skills as their lyrics suggest. (There’s also enough vocal chemistry between the three to capably handle harmony duties, although I wouldn’t say they put their own stamp on the vocals enough to be noticeably different or better than any old background singers.) All three leading ladies deliver a solid performance, but once again it comes back to what they do to stand out from the crowd, and unfortunately they don’t even stand out from each other on this track.

The lyrics strike me as all talk and no action here, as the narrator confidently declares that “it wouldn’t take much” to disprove their’s ex claim that they would regret walking away from the relationship…but never actually does anything to prove the ex wrong. (The ex may have “been too busy talking,” but the narrator doesn’t seem to be doing any walking.) The writers over-focus on the ex’s claims, and leave out two major pieces of information:

  • What made the narrator decide to leave in the first place?
  • How does the narrator plan to prove their ex wrong? Outside of mentioning their high-heeled shoes, the narrator leaves us all in the dark.

In contrast, a song like Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks” takes great pains to detail just how they plan on reasserting their independence. This narrator, in contrast, doesn’t even convince me that they’ve even left yet. The production and singers do their best to bridge the gap by doubling down on their confidence and optimism, but in the end, the song is too heavy a lift without providing hooks for the performers to latch on to.

“It wouldn’t take much” to fix this song, but just like the narrator in “Prove You Wrong,” nobody followed through with what needed to be done. Much like with Yearwood’s latest single, all the pieces seemed to be in place for a strong, powerful song with a strong, powerful message, but the writers ended up punting on the issue and squandered most of the track’s potential. It’s a decent song as is and certainly won’t offend anyone, but when you bring Sheryl Crow together with an all-star cast to deliver a haymaker to country radio, a glancing blow like this song has to be considered a disappointment.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a listen or two, but don’t expect it to stick with you.

Song Review: Maren Morris, “GIRL”

For an “empowering new female anthem,” I kind of wish the message was bit more empowering.

Honestly, I feel bad for Maren Morris right now. Where once the critical buzz around her was positive and complementary, the discussion around her recently has centered on how negative her influence on country music is (Saving Country Music in particular has become a vocal critic). With the book finally closed on her debut album Hero, Morris is now looking to try and change the conversation with “GIRL,” the leadoff single for her upcoming sophomore album. Unfortunately, while I appreciate the song’s acknowledgment of the demons both within and outside the narrator’s mind, the song doesn’t really go beyond saying “Rub some dirt on it and get back in the game,” and Morris and her producer lack the Carrie Underwood-like presence to make that message really stick.

The production gets off on the right foot by opening with a solitary hard-rock guitar, whose dark tone and simple methodical riff gives the song a real sense of unease and instability, reflecting the anxieties and pressures felt by the narrator. The problem is that the song never moves on from this vibe, leaving Morris to deliver her words of encouragement in an overly-serious atmosphere that doesn’t suit the writing at all. Part of the problem is the song’s sparse arrangement: Only a metronomic drum set ever joins the initial guitar, which means that there’s nothing there to inject any brightness or optimism into the track to help drive home the song’s message. Additionally, the slower tempo and simple chord structure loop leaves the song without any energy, and it just kind of plods along stoically from start to finish. It was a great place to start, but a lousy place to finish, and the listener leaves the song feeling a bit short of heartened or consoled.

Morris’s performance seems to suffer from the same case of the blehs that infected the production. She demonstrates impressive range and a solid-but-slightly-stilted flow on the track, but while the vocals have a tired, weary quality that suits the depressing verses, they fail to perk up when the narrator looks to inspire the subject of the song (Morris really steps into the trailing verse lines, but inexplicably steps back again for the punch lines on the chorus). As a result, the narrator comes across as beaten-down rather than encouraging, and the dearth of energy and passion leaves the listener wondering if Morris really believes in the optimism she’s trying to sell. Morris certainly has the charisma to sell a song like this (witness the power she brings on “My Church” or the emotion of “I Could Use A Love Song,” so her flat and uninspiring delivery is a complete mystery to me.

Lyrically, the song is an exhortation to a “girl” (in fact, Morris refers to it a message to herself) to not let the negativity surrounding them to bring them down, and to “pick yourself up off the kitchen floor” and keep moving forward. It’s a nice message at a high-level, but it feels like the narrator isn’t actually offering a solution to the problem at hand—they’re just saying “get back in the game!” like they’re a Little League coach trying to get their left fielder to tough out a skinned knee. Even shallow escapist tunes like Danielle Bradbery’s “Sway” offered more support than this song, because at least they give the aggrieved party some steps to follow! (If Morris is chafing under country music’s current climate, her best bet would have been to bring out a song like Kelsea Ballerini’s “Miss Me More” to spell out her leverage over the genre. After all, with the success of “The Middle,” her collaboration with Zedd and Grey, Morris’s case for leaving is even stronger than Ballerini’s!) There are also some jarring perspective shifts during the song (the narrator starts by talking about themselves, them shifts to the third-person to address a “girl,” then dives into some meta-commentary against the powers that be for pitting people against one another), but the lyrics do deserve some credit for at least making the story feel coherent, even if the writing isn’t terribly instructive. Overall, however, I just don’t find myself connecting or sympathizing with the narrator as much as I should, and the writing’s lack of direction is a major reason for this.

“GIRL” ends up falling into the same category as “Female” and “Speak To A Girl,” as it’s a song with a decent message that suffers from below-average execution. The production is not optimistic, the writing is not helpful, and Maren Morris herself is just not inspiring in the narrator’s role. There’s nothing empowering or anthemic about this song, and while all involved probably had good intentions, we all know what the road to hell is paved with.

Rating: 6/10. There might be some inspiration here for you, but don’t bet the farm on it.

Song Review: Maren Morris, “Rich”

Word to the wise, Maren Morris: There is such a thing as stretching a joke too far.

After two singles and one Grammy award, Morris finally broke through the radio blockade and scored her first No. 1 hit with “I Could Use A Love Song,” a song that pared back her usual pop-tinged production and took a more serious approach than “My Church” or “80s Mercedes.” However, Morris has now decided to go back to the formula that made radio so hesitant to embrace her in the first place, releasing “Rich” as the fourth (and likely final) single off of her debut album HERO. It’s a one-trick,  sleazy-sounding mess of a track that tries to stretch the tired old “if I had a dollar for…” phrase over a three-and-a-half minute track, and winds up being no fun to listen to at all.

For the amount of noise this mix generates, the production here is surprisingly sparse: A couple of hard-rock guitars provide some background noise, a piano repeats the same quarter note over and over on the chorus, and above all, a real drum set that’s so loud and prominent that it drowns everything else out and forces Morris to carry the melody herself.   The resulting sound is about as bad a fit for the subject matter as you could imagine: The pace is too slow to generate any energy, the primary guitar is too dark and heavy to make the track feel fun or interesting, and the overall   vibe feels far more raunchy and sleazy than it should be. The whole thing leaves the listener confused about how to feel: Should they be laughing with the narrator, or commiserating with them? In the end, they just feel annoyed for wasting their time.

My biggest complaint about Morris as a vocalist is that she’s forever hiding behind a slew of unnecessary (and not always flattering) vocal effects and harmonies, even though she’s a decent singer in her own right. These effects were smartly dialed back on “I Could Use A Love Song,” but “Rich” brings them back with a vengeance (though they don’t quite reach “My Church” levels), reducing both her vocal clarity and her believability. Frankly, I’m not sure what Morris wants us to think here: Is this song an over-the-top statement about the narrator’s love life, or is there some genuine sadness behind it? In the end, her motives are as unclear as her delivery, and the track floats in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

The lyrics are a mixed bag: They try their best to offer some clarity as to how the song should be interpreted, but they do so in the most ham-fisted, unoriginal manner possible. The narrator plays the old “if I had a dollar…” card to convey how untrustworthy her partner is and how stuck she remains on him regardless, and then paints the most ostentatious picture (Prada, Mercedes, “drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn”) to emphasize her point. It holds water through maybe the first chorus, after which the listener just shakes their head and says “Okay, okay, I get it already!” There are a few slivers of wit buried in the writing (“I wouldn’t be covered in all your IOU’s/Every promise you made me would have some real value”), but for each one there’s a matching moment of boneheaded laziness (“If I had a dime every time that you crossed my mind/Well I’d basically be sitting on a big a** pile of dimes?” That’s the best you can do?) It’s a step up from “Parked Out By The Lake,” but not by much, and certainly not enough to make the track interesting or memorable.

In short, “Rich” was a poor single choice by Maren Morris and her team, squandering whatever momentum “I Could Use A Love Song” gave them and leaving listeners confused enough to question the song’s meaning but not interested enough to dig deeper. Fourth album singles often set the tone for an artist’s next release, but if this confusing, unremarkable track is an indication of Morris’s future sound, I’m seeing a major sophomore slump on the horizon.

Rating: 4/10. No thanks.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett ft. Maren Morris, “Craving You”

On “Crash And Burn,” Thomas Rhett took a sad song and sang it in a happy way. On “Craving You,” it sounds like he’s trying to do the exact opposite.

Up to this point, Rhett’s singles have been positive, optimistic affairs in their sound (and, aside from “Crash And Burn,” in subject matter as well), even as he shifted from the Bro-Country sound of his debut album It Goes Like This to the Metropolitan groove of his follow-up album Tangled Up. While his upcoming third album is likely to push him farther in a pop-tinged direction, his leadoff single “Craving You” seems intent on broadening his discography by adding a bit of darkness to the mix. Whether or not Rhett has the same command over less happy material, however, is an open question.

Rhett tends to bounce between boundary-pushing pop sings and country-tinged ballads, and based on the production, this song definitely falls in the former category.  There isn’t any dobro or steel guitar thrown in here for the country crowd—this is a straightforward pop-rock mix, with clean (but real, surprisingly) percussion and electric guitars that carry the melody with more punch than I expected. The important thing to notice, however, is the difference in the song’s mood compared to past singles. The guitar tones aren’t as bright, and minor keys pervade both the chorus and the verses, which create a serious and foreboding atmosphere and indicate that the craving Rhett is singing about isn’t a healthy one.

The track’s seriousness carries over to the vocals as well, at Rhett himself doesn’t sound as upbeat and carefree as he usually does. Instead, he does his best Jason Aldean impression by infusing his delivery with more weight and gravity, and while he has the flow and charisma to make the song believable, it isn’t as natural a fit for him as his more-positive material. The song does a good job of keeping Rhett in a comfortable singing range, however, and Morris’s background harmonies accentuate the song’s tone perfectly without overwhelming Rhett’s melodies (a problem that forced the producers to turn Jordin Sparks’s volume way down when she back Rhett on “Playing With Fire”). Overall, the vocals are decent, but you can tell Rhett is slightly out of his comfort zone here.

The lyrics are probably the weakest part of “Craving You,” as the love-as-an-addiction trope has been done to death (most recently by the Zac Brown Band on “Beautiful Drug” and by Brett Young on his album cut “Close Enough”), and the words come off as a bit repetitive and nonsensical (can self-control really be paralyzed?). Like most of Rhett’s singles, this song sets itself apart via its sound rather than its writing, and the writing here is vague enough that if the song sounded more positive à la “Beautiful Drug,” the lyrics would fit that interpretation just as well. Despite their inconsequentiality, however, the writing is passable enough to keep from disrupting the track’s atmosphere.

Overall, “Craving You” is an unexpected departure from the tone of Thomas Rhett’s previous work, and while I’d argue the song is not as strong as his prior single “Star Of The Show,” it’s decent enough to show that he has the flexibility (and the courage) to take on material with a darker tone. I’d like to see him take on weighted topics the next time he stretches himself like this, but I’ll take this track for now.

Rating: 6/10. Unless you’re a stringent country purist, this song is worth checking out.

Song Review: Maren Morris, “I Could Use A Love Song”

I’ve noticed that my review scores seem to be inching higher lately. Is this a blip on the radar, or an indication of a larger trend towards more quality music? For me, there’s no better test than a new Maren Morris single.

I’ve been a skeptic of Morris ever since she burst onto the scene last year with her debut album Hero and the critically-acclaimed single “My Church,” which I consider to be one of the absolute worst songs of 2016. The follow-up single “80s Mercedes” didn’t do a whole lot for me either, but thankfully it didn’t induce the waves of nausea that “Church” did. “I Could Use A Love Song” is set to be the third single off of Hero, and it appears to be another step in the right direction for Morris’s career.

Production-wise, I would describe this song’s sound in two words: “Restrained” and “unsettling.” The mix is surprisingly quiet and sparse, and is driven by an acoustic guitar and electric piano, with a low-volume drum machine keeping time in the background. A spacious-sounding electric guitar jumps in on the bridge, but it’s kept at roughly the same volume level as everything else to keep it from being too jarring a transition. More important than the instruments involved, however, in the mood they set: The darker tones and occasional minor chords used here create a dark, uncomfortable atmosphere that not only meshes perfectly with the song’s theme, but amplifies the singer’s pain and emotion as it passes on to the listener.

Vocally, this song is a case is a case of addition by subtraction: Morris’s voice was practically drowned in annoying echo effects on her first two singles, effects that are mercifully dialed back here and restricted to the choruses. On her own, Morris is a decent singer with some impressive range (which is demonstrated here on the bridge), and it’s nice to see the producers recognize this fact here and give her vocals some room to breathe.

Thematically, the song features a cynical, jaded narrator who’s had so much bad luck in romance that her old coping mechanisms (drinking, smoking, long aimless drives) are becoming ineffective, and that she “could use a long song” to remind her of more innocent days. The topic has been done before (a lot), Morris has more than enough charisma to own the narrator’s role (in fact, I think she’s more believable on serious material like this as opposed to fluffy songs like “80s Mercedes”), and the sharp songwriting helps the song feel fresh. While I question whether hearing an old love song would be any more therapeutic than the narrator’s other coping tactics, music has always been good at reminding people of long-forgotten places and times, and the fact that the song was thought-provoking enough to make me ask the question seems like a win in itself.

Overall, “I Could Use A Love Song” succeeded in shifting my opinion of Maren Morris for the better, and is yet another sign that country music on the whole is heading in the right direction. While I’m not sure if radio will get behind this song (it seemed a bit wary of her past material, and slowing things down doesn’t usually earn you a spot on summer playlists), I think this sort of more-serious material suits her style very well, and hope to see her continue in this direction in the future.

Rating: 7/10. If you’re weren’t sold on Morris before, give this song a few spins and see what you think.