Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy”

If I’m honest, I kind of already thought Miranda Lambert was a cowboy…

I haven’t been the biggest fan of Lambert’s work over the last few years, but her previous single “Settling Down” felt like a marked improvement from the tired, uninspired songs she had been throwing out onto the radio, even if the radio preferred the inferior “Bluebird” (“Settling Down” only made it to #6 on Billboard’s airplay chart, compared to “Bluebird” reaching #1). The track ended up being the last off of Lambert’s Wildcard album, which is not a terrible thing given the improvement shown and that final album singles can server as a bridge to the next album. Sure enough, Lambert has returned with the presumed leadoff single to her eighth major-label album “If I Was A Cowboy,” and it might be the best song I’ve heard from her since the Korner’s establishment. It’s an easy-on-the-ears fantasy trip through the Old West that also makes some subtle points on gender-based double standards along the way.

There isn’t a ton to the production here, but it at least pass the context test and sounds like something suitable for a day out on the range. The ominous, deep-voiced electric guitars that are often associated with the Old West are only show up on the bridge solo and outro, but the song is drive by mostly acoustic guitars (the video doesn’t credit any banjos here, but there’s definitely something that sounds like a banjo strumming on the verses and rolling on the choruses) and real drums, and the higher-pitched steel guitar notes act as a serviceable stand-in for the classic whistling that defines the “Western movie” sound. The frequent minor chords and overall tone of the sound give the track a dark and melancholic feel that hint at the song’s true nature: The lyrics focus a lot on the wilder side of cowboy life, but there’s also a thread of pain and solitude running through the lifestyle that the sound brings to the forefront. Despite this mild darkness, however, the sound feels incredibly relaxed, making the song easy to listen to while helping put the focus squarely on the writing where it belongs. Overall, it’s a sold effort that keeps the track focused and avoids making the song feel out of place.

Lambert made her name as a singer with some serious attitude, and there’s definitely still some attitude present here, but it’s much more subdued that what we’re used to from the person who gave us “Kerosene” and “Mama’s Broken Heart.” It’s not a technically-demanding song and Lambert breezes through it was ease, but this allows her to fine-tune her delivery and apply just enough of an edge to the lines that need it. I called her out for sounding tired and lifeless on tracks like like “Keeper Of The Flame,” but she seems to have found her spark again and does a nice job capturing the dichotomy inherent in the track. Her vocals come across as clear and even energetic, but they also convey a sense of longing and world-weariness that give the listener the sense that despite the song’s hypothetical framing, Lambert has been riding the range all along, and she knows exactly what such a life entails. (Her “outlaw-esque” persona and willingness to forge her own path in an overly-homogeneous Nashville helps her sound believable in the role, but she’s got something extra in her delivery that allows her to own the Western motif; I couldn’t see an artist like Eric Church and Dierks Bentley pulling off a song like this quite as effectively.) This is a song that makes a lot of demands on the artist’s voice and charisma, and the fact the Lambert pulls this track off and makes it look easy gives you an idea of how she’s managed to stay relevant in this business for so long.

The lyrics here depict the narrator’s fantasy of living the cowboy life, and while it mostly trades in clichés, it’s at least a tempered version of the dream and brings both sides of the gunslinger stereotype into the equation. Cowboy songs are nothing new in the genre, but they’ve become a bit of a rarity over the years (although Garth Brooks has his own version of the story on the radio right now), but most of you can picture the scene: A smooth-talking, gun-toting drifter whose nightly exploits in drinking and lovemaking seek to fill a hole in their soul that can never truly be plugged. There’s the usual bravado (“I’d be lookin’ mighty fine on a poster,” “I’d be a legend at loving and leaving,” etc.), the occasional glimpses of the emptiness (“Nipping on a whiskey and numbing up my feelings”), and of course the sly nods towards nefarious behavior (“never begged, never borrowed, but I stole some”). What’s most interesting to me, however, is how the narrator frames the fantasy in gendered terms: They indicate that they would be male in this story, giving lines like “wanted by the law but the laws don’t apply to me” a bit more bite considering that men and women are often treated very differently for the exact same behavior. (For example, when it comes to having many romantic partners, men are called “players” and even “a legend in loving and leaving,” while women are branded as “loose” or “cheap.”) There’s even a call out of the “boy” part of cowboys, with the narrator declaring that there’s nothing wrong with a woman filling the same role and “if your daughters grow up to be cowboys, so what.” (Note to every other writer in Nashville: This is how you call back to a star of yesterday. You can name-drop Willie and Waylon without name-dropping Willie and Waylon.) The song gives the audience a lot to think about as they ride along the prairie, making this an enjoyable and perhaps even enlightening listen.

“If I Was A Cowboy” is a solid effort from Miranda Lambert that lets us indulge in a cowboy fantasy while inviting us to think critically about the assumptions that underpin it.The production sets the mood and stays out of the way, the lyrics give us both the good and bad surrounding stereotypical cowboy behavior and pushes the listener to spend the time thinking about it, and Lambert delivers a performance that strikes a perfect between conveying the machismo and the weakness of the solo gunslinger. Lambert has really stepped up her game in the last two years, and while she’s an industry veteran who’s earned the right to release whatever she wants regardless of commercial viability, I wish a few more artists would blaze a similar trail. Take a few less-traveled roads, don’t be afraid to think outside the box, and give the listener something to ruminate on in your song—it will make your music stand out, and though there’s a chance it may fall flat, there’s a chance it might resonate with people too, and make your work stand out from the crowd. You may stand alone in your convictions, but sometimes cowboys have to stand alone for what they stand for.

Rating: 7/10. This one is worth hearing.

Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down”

Wait…did Miranda Lambert end up taking my advice?

When I reviewed the uninspired “Bluebird,” I declared that Lambert needed to “pull up stakes, get the heck away from Nashville and country music, and rest her mind and spirit for a while.” Luckily for Lambert, “uninspired” is in style for country music right now, and “Bluebird” would up as her first Billboard airplay #1 since 2012, earning her career a temporary stay of execution. However, Lambert seems to be using the extra time more wisely than I expected, as “Settling Down,” her third single from Wildcard, digs into some deeper, more-thoughtful questions while finally featuring a decent sound to back them up. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but it’s a step up from the mediocre stuff Lambert has been dumping on us for the last few years, and that’s a welcome change of pace.

The production here still has some of the same problems that “Bluebird” did, but there are a few positive developments that make the sound a better fit for the subject matter. Yes, the percussion line still feels weak, the background electric guitars are too washed-out, the echo effects on the vocals still do more harm than good, and there’s still not much energy behind the mix. However, the heavy use of minor chords and the darker guitar tones (not to mention some creepy strings in the background) give the song an unsettled and ominous feeling, which in turn gives the listener a good sense of the narrator’s inner turmoil and indecision while also adding some weight to the question of settling down or not. (The dobro and especially the deep pre-chorus electric guitars also break through the audio effects to provide some actual texture and bite to the sound.) It’s the sort of mix that works with the writing instead of against it, and its support makes the song that much more interesting and impactful.

Vocally, Lambert’s recent problems have stemmed from her lack of energy rather than technical issues (she sounded more tired than anything else on “Bluebird”), so just the fact that she seems a bit more engaged and invested this time around is a noticeable upgrade. What’s most important, however, is that the song (which Lambert co-wrote) puts her in position to succeed: From her high-profile love life (marriage to and divorce from Blake Shleton, relationships with Anderson East and Evan Felker) to her attitude-filled hits to her independent, give-no-quarter image, this might be the perfect song for Lambert at this point in her career: Should she slow down, or should she keep rolling along? It’s the sort of song that doesn’t need to be sold; the audience buys it the minute it starts rolling out of the speakers, and the fact that Lambert’s delivery feels rejuvenated is just an added benefit.

The lyrics here tell the story of a narrator standing at a crossroads in their life: They’ve been traveling the same path for years and regret nothing, but they’ve now discovered an alternative way of life (bound to a partner and a home), and they’re debating whether or not to trade their wanderlust lifestyle for something more grounded. These lyrics aren’t perfect by any means: The verses are basically the same question over and over, and some of them feel a bit ambiguous (in particular, the early lines about “marigold mornings” and waiting for the rain are slightly confusing about which option they represent), and the “settling up” piece of the hook feels more awkward than it should (is the narrator settling some sort of debt?), but there’s enough variety in the questions to keep them from feeling too repetitive, and they project a real sense of seriousness about the whole issue (this is a big decision, and the narrator is not taking it lightly). In other words, there’s a real maturity to the writing, one that meshes well with the recent narrative of Lambert’s career: Life on the road (or musical careers in general) don’t last forever, and eventually you have to decide to either cough up another roll of quarters or get off of the ride.

“Settling Down” isn’t the Miranda Lambert we’re used to, but it feels like a natural evolution as she transitions into the late stages of her mainstream career. Despite the fact that this came off the same album as “Bluebird,” it gives you the impression that Lambert is stepping back and weighing her options as she plots her next move, and for once the writing and production elevate the song rather than weigh it down. It’s still not a song I’m terribly excited about (and I doubt I’ll remember it much once it’s gone), but it’s better than I expected, and for as much as Lambert’s output has frustrated me over the last few years, that’s about all I can ask for.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a spin or two to see what you think.

Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “Bluebird”

Remember when Miranda Lambert released songs that were interesting, or at least coherent? Because I’m not sure I do anymore.

I’m starting to think I need to add Lambert to my list of artists who deserve a ‘what happened to them?’ deep dive, because she’s pretty much lost all of her mainstream relevance. The Weight Of These Wings garnered some critical buzz, but the singles were generally awful and didn’t make much of an impact on the airwaves, and her leadoff single for this year’s Wildcard album “It All Comes Out In The Wash” turned out to be unsurprisingly threadbare, only rising to #14 on Billboard’s airplay chart. She’s back to make a late play for 2019 relevance with her second Wildcard single “Bluebird,” but it’s no more interesting or moving than anything else she’s released in the last few years. This is an attitude song without attitude, a statement of power that lacks power, and a fairly effective drug-free substitute for Ambien.

Things go wrong right from the start, and the production is a major reason for this. The song opens with some “ooh-oohs” over a washed-out, echoey steel guitar and a limp drum set with no punch at all. Besides a low-key keyboard, some spacious electric guitars wrapped in audio effects, and a few mandolin riffs, that’s pretty much all we get, and it’s nowhere near enough to get its points across. Where once Lambert’s mixes were sharp, emphatic, and at least loud enough to make their presence known, this sound is weak and dull, and the atmosphere it creates is not anthemic and empowering, but unsettled and weirdly psychedelic, which clashes badly with the song’s subject matter. Where once Lambert’s sound practically burned with energy, this thing is annoyingly lethargic, and the only toe-tapping it induces is from listeners impatiently waiting for this thing to just be over already. Where once Lambert’s production drew in listeners and invited them to mull over the writing, this awful mix actively pushes people away, making them care less instead of more about what’s being said. Poor production has been an issue for Lambert for a while now, and she really needs to find a half-decent producer to work with if she entertains any hope of regaining mainstream relevance.

I mentioned in my “Keeper Of The Flame” review that Lambert came across as very tired, and I get that same feeling from this performance. The song feels like a decent fit for her range and flow, and there are a few flashes of her trademark feistiness, but for the most part her delivery is lifeless, and despite the writing’s insistence that there’s still some fight left in her, the aura given off by the vocals is one of defeat and resignation. As a result, Lambert, who once owned roles involving narrators fighting uphill battles against the powers that be, utterly fails to sell the story here, and not only does the not audience not find her credible, but they don’t find her even compelling enough to keep listening. It’s a surprising fall from grace for one of the genre’s formerly-premier voices, and I still think that Lambert could use a long hiatus from the industry to rediscover her passion and motivation.

Let’s not mince words here: This might be the worst-written song I’ve ever heard from Lambert. The world-weary narrator is still trying to talk a good game about rolling with the punches in a world that’s turned against them (“if the house just keeps on winning, I got a wildcard up my sleeve,” “I’m a giver, yeah, and I’m still givin’ them hell,” etc.), but these are mixed in with a bunch of random, nonsensical statements that just serve to confuse the listener (“I keep digging down for the deep”? “If I get confused and I start to lose, I rhyme a dime ’til it all makes sense”?). Even the “bluebird” hook feels weak and forced, and it takes so long to develop that by the time the punch line hits, the listener has forgotten what it means. The narrator comes across as a punch-drunk fighter, one whose heart is still in the struggle but whose head no longer has the sense to realize that the battle is already lost. Mix in some passionless vocals and off-kilter production, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

“Bluebird” is an attempt to summon the will to fight when there’s no will left in the task, and an all-around poor showing from an artist who should be better than this. The production is awkward and unable to carry the necessary  load, the writing bounces between defiant declarations and complete nonsense, and Miranda Lambert sounds more burnt out than anything else. Lambert really needs to pull up stakes, get the heck away from Nashville and country music, and rest her mind and spirit for a while, because she’s not doing anyone any favors in her current state. This song barely qualifies as raging against the dying of the light (it’s more like mildly disagreeing), and it’s not something I’m interested in revisiting anytime soon.

Rating: 4/10. Nope.

 

Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “It All Comes Out In The Wash”

(Editor’s Note: My brother forgot to bring his 3DS on vacation, so there’s no Nuzlocke episode this week. Enjoy this review instead!)

The alternate title for this one: “Don’t Worry, Be Messy.”

After her high-profile marriage to and divorce from Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert got lost in the wilderness for a few years, releasing only a single double album The Weight Of These Wings filled with tracks that ranged from “meh” (“Tin Man”) to “yuck” (“We Should Be Friends”). While there were also a few group projects tossed in during that time (a decent feature on Jason Aldean’s “Drowns The Whiskey,” a mediocre lead role on The Pistol Annies’s “Got My Name Changed Back”), it had been a while since Lambert to put together another solo project for mass consumption. The wait is over now, however, as she has officially turned the page on The Weight Of These Wings and released “It All Comes Out In The Wash” as the presumed lead single for her next album. After a few listens, it’s clear that the weight of her wings aren’t as heavy anymore, and she’s finally ready to return to the mainstream spotlight with that old familiar energy and attitude. However, there are also some dark corners here that make me hesitant to give it a hearty recommendation.

The production here is a sizeable upgrade from everything The Weight Of These Wings had to offer. I never thought I’s be happy to hear such a conventional guitar-and-drum mix as this one is, but at least it sounds professionally recorded and assembled as opposed to the poorly-arranged live-sounding sound we got from Lambert’s last album. There’s more to this mix, however, then just sound copy-pasted instruments (for one, an acoustic guitar get some screen time and an organ does a nice job creating a suitable background atmosphere). The regular-yet-rare minor chords and the bright-yet-slimy (and nearly squealing) tone of the electric guitars give the listener a taste of the messiness discussed in the lyrics, the tempo is fast enough to keep the song moving, and there’s more of a groove here than I’ve heard from Lambert’s work in several years. There’s nothing terribly exciting or groundbreaking here, but it’s the first mix from a Miranda Lambert song that I’ve actually enjoyed listening to since I started the blog several years ago.

During the The Weight Of These Wings era, I called Lambert out for pretty much every sin a vocalist can make: her voice we weak, her tone sounded terrible, her tone was tired rather than inspired, her flow was choppy instead of smooth, etc. This time, however, Lambert seems to have found her “A” game, because this is the best she’s sounded in a long time. Her range is decent (if not tested much), her flow and her wit are sharp, and her delivery features all the sass, spunk, and confidence that we’ve come to expect from her. While some of the lyrics are so over-the-top that they’re impossible to sell (getting “knocked up in a truck” is not really something you can laugh off), Lambert’s contagious optimism and effervescent attitude rub off on the audience, and they all avoid thinking too deeply about the topics and end up sharing in her “que sera, sera” point of view. This is the Lambert I’ve been waiting for since probably “Only Prettier,” and while I wouldn’t say I’m blown away by her performance, it’s nice to have the old Miranda back for a change.

The lyrics are basically the narrator saying “hey, bad things are going to happen in love and in life, but you’ll be okay in the long run,” using a laundry metaphor to its full effect to make the point. I’ve got mixed feelings about the overall writing: One one hand, I’ve busted both Kenny Chesney and Cody Johnson for overly-limiting hooks, and this one isn’t really any better, but what differentiates this song is by taking both interpretations (stains and messy relationships) and cleverly iterating through the many situations where they might apply, including when they might apply simultaneously! On the other hand, however, while I appreciate the narrator’s attempt to say that everything will work out eventually, some of the scenes presented here are a bit too serious to treat so lightly. I’ve already mentioned the “knocked up” line, but getting “frisky with your boss at the copy machine” and the implied power dynamic in that scenario isn’t something to laugh about either. Spilling A1 sauce on your mother-in-law’s table is one thing, but trivializing what could easily be sexual assault makes me more than a little uneasy. (It’s a good thing Lambert brings her charisma to bear, because this could have gone way off the rails without a likeable narrator.) Overall, I like the execution, but not so much the subject matter the writers tried to tackle.

As good as some of the components of “It All Comes Out In The Wash” are, I’m afraid the Carlton Anderson rule comes into play: If the writing starts making the listener uncomfortable, that’s going to outweigh excellence elsewhere. Sure, Miranda Lambert and her producer deserve props for improving on past performances, and Lambert almost makes you overlook some of the lyrical awkwardness with her vocals, but I can’t ignore what’s lurking behind the curtain here. Much like Chris Janson’s most-popular work, this is a song that encourages a carefree approach to life that just isn’t warranted.

Rating: 5/10. This one’s pretty much a wash.

Song Review: Jason Aldean ft. Miranda Lambert, “Drowns The Whiskey”

Yes, it’s another serious song from Jason Aldean. The difference is that the seriousness actually feels warranted here.

Jason Aldean’s defining characteristic as an artist is that he sings as if there’s a giant black cloud over his head at all times, and the quality of his songs tends to hinge on how well a track meshes with that negative energy.  “You Make It Easy” was okay, but didn’t feature enough darkness to mesh with Aldean’s style, while “They Don’t Know” went too far in the other direction and contained too much self-righteous anger to be enjoyable. His best work blends a bit of sadness with his natural delivery (see: “Why,” “The Truth,” “Any Ol’ Barstool”), and thankfully that’s what we get on “Drowns The Whiskey”: A clever take on an old story that takes advantage of Aldean’s serious style.

The production is primarily guitar-driven, with a dark, rough electric guitar covering the melody, a louder, cleaner guitar adding some stabs for effect, and a steel guitar generously heaped on top for extra atmosphere and a suitable solo. (An acoustic guitar eventually jumps onto the melody as well.) The track is backed by a real drum set, and while the beat feels a bit too busy and complex for to match the smooth, melancholic feel of the guitars, it’s unobtrusive enough that it doesn’t disrupt the song’s atmosphere. The minor chords are here, of course, but there aren’t many of them, and the overall chord structure is surprisingly conventional, making the mix heavily reliant on the instruments to set the mood. For the most part, the musicians are up to the task (however,the rapid-fire repetitive tones that open the song and pop up occasionally feel out of place), establishing a mood with just the right amount of darkness and keeping the focus on the lyrics where they belong.

Aldean is kind of a one-trick pony when it come to his singing style, but portraying a memory-haunted mess is right in his wheelhouse, and he does a nice job making the character feel genuine and believable. The song stands as a great example of keeping a singer within their comfort zone: The range isn’t too wide, the flow isn’t too fast, and the emotional demands are fine-tuned to play to Aldean’s strengths as a performer. It’s also a great example of how to properly feature a featured singer: This is the best I’ve heard Lambert sound since I started this blog, and her vocals are set at the perfect volume to capture her distinctive tone without overwhelming Aldean’s lines. For such a disparate pair, Aldean and Lambert have a surprising amount of vocal chemistry, so much so that I wouldn’t mind hearing them team up in the future. After all the complaining I’ve done lately about unconvincing artists, hearing these two perform was a welcome breath of fresh air.

The lyrics put a clever twist on a tired topic: Lots of singers try to drown the memory of a former love in alcohol, but I’ve never heard anyone flip the phrase around and highlight “how your memory drowns the whiskey.” I also like the direction of the verses (unoriginal as they are), telling the Jack Daniels folks that the whiskey ain’t workin’ anymore and declaring that the memory is so strong that other women in the bar don’t even get the chance to test their might against it. There’s just enough detail here to set the scene, and just enough wit in the writing to refresh a time-honored trope in the genre and make it connect with its audience.

I’m not sure if “Drowns The Whiskey” is great at anything, but it’s pretty darn good at most everything, and its consistency helps it stand out from its peers on the radio. It’s a step up from “You Make It Easy,” and together the songs make me wonder if it’s worth taking a closer look at Aldean’s Rearview Town album. I’ll gladly let this song drown all the mediocrity I’ve heard lately.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “Keeper Of The Flame”

If songs like this represent the flame Miranda Lambert’s been keeping, she’s free to put it out at anytime.

Seriously, what the heck happened to Lambert? While other artists like Cole Swindell and Thomas Rhett have taken steps to course-correct their careers in recent years, Lambert seems bound and determined to run hers straight into the ground. Where once she released clever, thoughtful, attitude-laden tracks that produced critical and commercial acclaim, in the last few years she’s oscillated between boring, uninteresting snoozefests (“Smokin’ And Drinkin’,” “Tin Man”) and vacuous, over-the-top tire fires (“Little Red Wagon,” “We Should Be Friends”). Her latest single “Keeper Of The Flame” falls squarely into the former category, as it’s a plodding snoozefest that pays little homage to the forebearers she claims to represent.

The production here, like the rest of Lambert’s Weight Of These Wings singles, is sparse and restrained, driven mostly by an acoustic guitar and a basic drum set, neither of which sound terribly motivated. An organ and some electric guitars jump in to add some volume and atmosphere on the choruses, but they don’t address the biggest issue: An utter lack of energy that makes the track bore rather than inspire its listeners. The chord structure is also a huge problem here, as the relative lack of chord changes in the verses makes the song feel repetitive and monotonous, and the prevalence of minor chords makes the song feel more serious and bitter than it should.

My biggest issue with the sound, however, is how it fails to follow the singer’s lead and pays no respect to the artists who started the flame Lambert claims to keep. Where’s Hank Sr.’s steel guitar? Where are the string from the Countrypolitan era? Where are the rough edges of the Outlaw movement, the nifty leads of the Bakersfield sound, or the rollicking guitars of the neotraditional era? Sure, the basic approach to this mix stands in stark contrast to the busy bombast of the Bro-Country/Metropolitan era, but Lambert’s claim of keeping a flame alive rings hollow when that flame isn’t actually reflected in her song.

If I could sum up Lambert’s vocal performance in a word, it would be tired, suggesting that her role as flamekeeper is really starting to wear her down. It’s tolerable on a technical level, but the song’s key forces her to go a bit below her comfort zone on the verses, further accentuating the weariness in her delivery. Much like on “Tin Man,” Lambert lacks the power and passion to really sell the song and make it believable, and she’s unable to push back against the aggressive blandness of the percussion. (The only thing that kinda-sorta makes this work is Lambert’s past history as a traditionalist champion. If this were any other singer, even Carrie Underwood, I wouldn’t buy this argument at all.) It makes me wonder if in her quest to keep the flame of tradition alive, she let her own personal fire go out along the way.

The lyrics, where the narrator claims to be walking the path of their musical ancestors and keeping their traditions alive, feels run-of-the-mill and generic, and lacks the combative defiance that Lambert hung her hat on back on the day. Instead, the writing focuses on the toll the narrator’s struggle has taken, with lines like with lines like “I’m bent, but I’m not broken” and being “burned out to ashes.” Outside of the clever “pilot lights” line, however, the fire imagery is nothing you haven’t heard a million times before, and while there’s a strong meta thread running through the tune (Lambert is considered a traditional torch-bearer in the face of a Bro onslaught, and lines like “Waiting for a wind to…start a fire again” indicate that she’s waiting out the storm until the old sounds reemerge), it doesn’t make the song feel any more inspired or interesting. It’s a disappointing stance, given that other artists are taking more proactive approaches and incorporating their influences more overtly into their work (Midland, Jon Pardi, etc.)

I’m not ready to add Miranda Lambert to my list of artists who need to be tossed out of country music, but I do think she needs to take a sabbatical and rediscover her creativity and passion. “Keeper Of The Flame” is an uninspired, disappointing performance that only pays shallow lip service to the job of keeping tradition alive, and its bland production, blasé writing and weary vocal performance add up to a wholly forgettable track. Lambert is capable of much better, and I’d prefer to hear from her when she’s rested and recharged.

Rating: 4/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “Tin Man”

So…is Miranda Lambert finally ready to get back in the saddle and release some quality material to country radio? After listening to “Tin Man” a few times, I’m afraid the answer is a resounding “No.”

Lambert’s last single “We Should Be Friends” was a flaming pile of garbage, and it was lucky to get the mid-20s airplay chart peak that it did before its momentum stalled. In its wake, Lambert decided to use her performance slot on the ACM awards to launch “Tin Man,” a fan favorite from her current album The Weight Of These Wings, as her third single from the album. While I have to admit that “Tin Man” is a far better song than “We Should Be Friends” was, it only rises to the level of forgettable background music, and is still a long way from actually being good.

I still stand by my statement that whoever produced this album ought to be fired immediately, but this song tries to limit the damage by giving the producer almost nothing to mess around with. The song is an acoustic ballad that includes nothing but Lambert and her guitar (and some quiet background tones from something I can’t identify). There are no drums, no bass, no electric instruments, nothing. Unfortunately, this decision translates to a song with no energy, no impact, and no compelling reason to listen to it. (Furthermore, the producer still manages to screw up the mix by completely botching the volume balance, which means that depending on your volume setting, either the guitar is too quiet or Lambert’s vocals are too loud.)

Mercifully, Lambert sounds a lot better on this track than on “We Should Be Friends,” and lets people hear what made her a star in the first place. However, Lambert’s calling card has always been her attitude and intensity, neither of which are present on “Tin Man.” Instead, the song is handled in a more-conversational style (which makes sense on the surface, given the song’s premise), and Lambert keeps her vocals much quieter and more restrained than usual. Unfortunately, this restraint leaves her unable to bring her usual vocal charisma and passion to bear, and as a result she fails to convince the listener that this conversation is worth listening to. Despite her best efforts, the song never rises beyond just existing, and instead of making a person feel her pain, it puts them to sleep.

The lyrics of “Tin Man” describe an imagined conversation between the narrator and the heart-seeking Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz. While the writing is actually fairly solid here, it isn’t clever enough to rise above Lambert’s bland, boring delivery and make listeners sit up and pay attention. Despite being framed as a conversation, we never actually get to hear anything from the Tin Man’s perspective—the whole song is just Lambert lifelessly lamenting the pain of a broken heart. Furthermore, the ‘ooh-ooh’ interludes add nothing to the track, and make it run far longer than it needs to. In the end, whatever wit the song has is swallowed up by the underwhelming vocals and production, and by the end, you’re more than ready to rinse out your ears with a different song.

Overall, “Tin Man” comes across as background music you might hear standing in an elevator, and though it’s still a step up from Miranda Lambert’s last single, it’s a far cry from her best work. The song may be billed as a tearjerker, but any tears this song draws from you will be out of boredom, not sadness.

Rating: 5/10. Unless you’re in the market for a non-habit-forming sleep aid, you’re safe to pass on this one.

Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “We Should Be Friends”

I can sum up my reaction to this song in one word: Yuck. If Miranda Lambert wants to make a triumphant return to country music prominence, she’s going to have to do a lot better than this.

Once upon a time, Lambert was the woman in the genre, flush with radio success, critical acclaim, and industry awards. Her golden touch has failed her in recent years, however, and she abdicated her throne by laying low for some time after her high-profile split with fellow country singer Blake Shelton. She returned to mild applause this year with “Vice,” the mediocre leadoff single for her new double album The Weight Of These Wings, and has now selected “We Should Be Friends” as her follow-up song.

Whoever was in charge of the production of this song should be fired immediately, because this thing sounds awful. It sounds like it was recorded at a dive bar with a bad sound system, and that the guitar player was standing twenty feet away from their microphone. The drums are way too prominent in the mix, especially early on, and there’s nothing else here to carry the melody—on several verses, the drums are pretty much all you hear. Seriously, I could have done a better job arranging this junk with freaking Garageband.

Lambert doesn’t get a pass here either—she’s the sole songwriter, so she has to answer for what amounts to a checklist song (complete with strange images and awkward syllable stretches) that tries desperately to connect with middle-aged women. While songs like this can work if they’re paired with a great vocal delivery (Martina McBride’s “This One’s For The Girls” is a great example), Lambert’s delivery has never sounded worse on a song than it does here: Her voice sounds thin, her flow on the verses is choppy, and her tone grates on your ears like nails on a chalkboard. Her trademark eff-you attitude is still apparent throughout the song, but it’s not enough to save something this bad.

Overall, “We Should Be Friends” is such a large step backwards for Lambert that it calls her entire future in mainstream country music into question. Given her stature and the rise of the independent country scene, of course, it’s likely Lambert doesn’t really care—she’s got the freedom to make whatever music she wants to make. However, if this track is indicative of her future sonic direction, someone else can have my seat on the bandwagon, because I am out.

Rating: 3/10. Go back and check out some of Lambert’s past singles, because this one’s not worth your time.