Song Review: Runaway June, “Head Over Heels”

Don’t look now, but I think Runaway June has found their groove.

The third time turned out to be the charm for Jennifer Wayne, Hannah Mulholland, and Naomi Cooke: After “Lipstick” and “Wild West” failed to launch, 2018’s “Buy My Own Drinks” finally broke through the radio blockade: The song reached #8 on Billboard’s airplay chart, cracked the Top Five on Mediabase, earned a Top Twenty slot on my year-end song list, and generated enough buzz and momentum to finally get the trio’s debut album Blue Roses out the door. Now, however, comes the hard part: Country music will make just about anyone a one-hit wonder (especially when a debut single is involved), but avoiding a sophomore slump and becoming a consistent hitmaker is a whole new hurdle that many artists are never able to overcome. Judging by the sound of Runaway June’s follow-up single “Head Over Heels,” however, I’d say that any failure to repeat their recent success would be more on us than on them. The song is a confident, energetic anthem from women that are ready to move on from a failed relationship, and matches the power of its predecessor note for note.

The production this time around is noticeably more conventional than on “Buy My Own Drinks”: There’s a not-insignificant layer of Nashville polish on top of the instruments, the steel guitar is pushed deeper into the background to make way for a slicker guitar-and-drum arrangement (there’s even a token banjo that pops up on the chorus), and there’s a real seriousness behind the sound this time around. These changes would normally be causes for concern, but there are some positive developments as well, the biggest being that track has way more of a groove than “Buy My Own Drinks” ever did, keepin the energy level high and the song moving forward even as the instruments start to dim. The brazen, liquid-courage-fueled strength from the trio’s last single has been replaced with something more subdued yet more resilient, giving the listener the feeling that the narrator really means it when they it’s over this time. That consistent confident atmosphere is something that both tracks share, and it helps support the subject material by making the monologue feel more meaningful.

Lead singer Cooke may not be the bold, bubbly narrator that we saw last time, but she’s no less determined to exert her independence and showcase her talents. On a technical level, both her range and flow are strong, and she breezes through the song’s limited demands without breaking a sweat. However, just because she isn’t challenged here does not mean she mails in her performance: This sort of last-time-was-the-last-time song is uniquely challenging because it invites the audience to ask “Why is this time different from all the times before?”, and requires a performance that grabs us all by the collar and snarls “I mean it.” Cooke accomplishes this by projecting a hint of frustration on the opening verse and bringing back just enough of that “Buy My Own Drinks” swagger to suggest that she’s dealing from a position of strength this time, and Wayne and Mulholland back her up with some solid harmony work on the choruses (although that high harmony on the verses feels a bit more awkward than it should). These women seem to have found a formula that works with these confident “I can, and I will” songs, and they always leave me wanting to hear more.

I think the writing this time around is actually a tick better than on “Buy My Own Drinks.” The premise itself isn’t exactly novel: The narrator is sick and tired of a relationship that has devolved into a serious of never-ending one-night stands, and they’re putting their foot down and declaring that they’re done wearing their “you get drunk, call me up, and head over heels.” The hook is pretty clever once you realize what it’s saying (it admittedly took me nearly a entire playthrough before I realized “Oh, that‘s what they mean!”), and there’s a fair amount of wit spread through the entire song (“you don’t wanna go home alone/Yeah but you will tonight,” “I can tell by the way that I’m moving, I’m moving on”). While the premise itself is far from novel, the little details that are included really help the listener visualize the scene (“Pick my stilettos up off the floor/Walk of shame out your front door”). I kind of wish they’d taken the shoe metaphor a little bit farther à la Randy Travis’s “Old Pair Of Shoes,” but this song is more of a spiritual successor to Nancy Sinatra’s classic “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” and there’s more than enough attitude and determination in the writing to help the narrator get their point across. It’s a sharp lyrical showing across the board, and when paired when Cooke and some suitable production, the result is a darn good song.

Where “What She Wants Tonight” was a false god of supposed female empowerment, “Head Over Heels” is the real deal. The production is suitably serious, the writing projects a lot of strength, and Runaway June answers the question of whether or not their previous performance is repeatable with a resounding “Yes.” This deserves to be every bit as successful as “Buy My Own Drinks” (and even more so, to be honest), and while country music’s continued allergy to female artists will make that a challenge, this trio seems prepared for the fight. If nothing else, they’ve got the right footwear for the job.

Rating: 7/10. Find a spot for this one on your playlist.

Song Review: Runaway June, “Buy My Own Drinks”

I recently passed on a chance to see Runaway June in concert nearby, but if they had been promoting this as their latest single, I might have reconsidered my decision.

Runaway June seems to be on the same once-a-year release schedule that Chase Bryant is, but last year’s offering “Wild West” was an uninteresting bore that was mostly ignored by the radio, peaking at a weak #36 on Billboard’s airplay chart. New acts don’t get too many second chances to make a first impression in the genre (especially female artists, as country radio is inexplicably hostile to them), so for the trio’s third single, they decided to “go big or go home,” and selected “Buy My Own Drinks” as their  2018 single. Honestly, the third time just might be the charm for this group, as this song is a fun, punchy song with a ton of confidence behind it, and it’s a real blast to listen to.

The productions opens with a catchy, sticks-only beat and acoustic guitar rhythm, getting its groove on early and bringing a ton of energy to the table. The mix gets a bit more conventional as it rolls along, tossing in electric guitars and a mix of real and synthetic percussion, but it maintains (and perhaps even increases) its energy level and creates a celebratory, confident atmosphere that complements the attitude of the writing: Even when forced to deal with the aftermath of her wild night, the bright, bouncy instruments combine with the self-assured vocals to declare that the narrator is more than up to the task. While Hannah Mulholland’s mandolin is mostly left in the background here, it gets a little room to breathe after the choruses, though not enough to really give the song a unique sonic flair. Still, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of minutes, and it’ll keep you humming along long after the song ends.

By herself, lead singer Naomi Cooke is capable enough as a vocalist: She demonstrates enough range to go from the low verses to the higher choruses without losing any power or tone, and she brings a ton of confidence and swagger to the table. The magic really happens, however, when Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne jump in on the harmony parts, as the trio’s voices blend incredibly well and really accentuate the attitude behind the track. Whether with one voice of all of them, however, the trio bring a lot of strength and charisma to the narrator’s role (in fact, the vocals add as much energy as the production itself), and when she says she can do something, not only do you believe her, but you start rooting for her to have the best night ever! I wasn’t sure that Runaway June had a performance like this one in them, but I’m happy to be proven wrong.

The writing, which details a woman’s quest for a fun night on the town in the wake of a breakup, doesn’t seem like the most novel topic at first (for example, consider Lady Antebellum’s “Bartender”). “Buy My Own Drinks,” however, puts an interesting twist by focusing on the solitary aspect of the event: She’s going to dance by herself, arrange her own ride home, and of course, “buy my own drinks.” In fact, she goes as far as turn away Chris Janson’s well-meaning protagonist from “Drunk Girl”:

I can walk my own self to the front door
I can take my own self to bed
I can medicate my own headache
I can be my own boyfriend

If confidence is sexy, than the narrator is easily the most beautiful person in the bar. They are ready to revel in their freedom and don’t want anybody getting in the way of their fun, and through their attention to detail and the complementary vocals and production, they bring the listener along for the ride.

It’s too bad that “Buy My Own Drinks” wasn’t released a few months ago, because this would have been a great song for the summer season. Regardless, the song is a nice combination of lighthearted fun and female empowerment, and is probably the most enjoyable song I’ve heard since Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key.” Radio stations might not jump on this track due to the genre’s apparent allergy to female artists, but it’ll be their loss.

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

Song Review: Runaway June, “Wild West”

Pardner, if you’re lookin’ for a love song to capture your imagination and really move you, you best saddle up and move on, ’cause y’ain’t gonna find it here.

Runaway June is an all-female trio that signed with Wheelhouse Records last year, and they seem to be positioning themselves as a modern-day version of the Dixie Chicks with their harmonies and instrumentation. While their debut single “Lipstick” highlighted their talents and influences, the song only managed to score some polite applause and a #28 airplay peak on Billboard. In response, the group pivoted back towards the mainstream for their second single “Wild West,” but the shift cost the trio the very things that made their sound unique and interesting, and the result is a uninspired, unimpactful track that’s just flat-out boring.

The production on “Lipstick” set a positive, energetic tone and had an organic, almost bluegrass feel to it, with prominent fiddles, steel guitar, and dobro and a minimal electric presence. “Wild West,” in comparison, dials back the tempo and cuts back on the instrumentation (the steel guitar is still there, but the fiddle is relegated to the bridge solo and the dobro was cut completely). This song is mostly guitar-driven, with an acoustic guitar covering the verses and a restrained, deep-toned electric guitar trying (but not really succeeding) to add a Western flair on the choruses. The result is a mix that just plods along without any energy at all, and one whose reliance on minor chords keeps the song from establishing the romantic vibe that it’s shooting for. Compared to the group’s hard-hitting debut, this song does absolutely nothing for the listener.

The sassy, optimistic vocals on “Lipstick” made the song feel like an unreleased Dixie Chick tune, and it fit the group’s vocal blend incredibly well. On this track, however, the emotions are dialed back as much as the production, and the trio’s vocals come off as generic and uninteresting as a result. Lead singer Naomi Cooke trades her spot-on Natalie Maines impression for a generic, lifeless delivery that lacks any sort of passion, and the harmonies from Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne are nowhere near as strong this time around (and are hobbled by some strange, echoey vocal effects). The group just doesn’t have the energy or chemistry they showed on “Lipstick,” and thus they don’t give the listener a compelling reason to pay attention to them here.

The lyrics here tell the tale of a woman trying to encourage a man to be her cowboy and take her along on his travels, and try to cram in as much Western-themed imagery as they can along the way. Unfortunately, said imagery is mostly unimaginative (“Steal my heart like Jesse James?” “Desperados making our getaway?” Yeah, I’ve never heard anything like that before) and sometimes demeaning (“Ride me off in the sunset?” I know what they were trying to say, but this is either a Freudian slip or an unneeded sexual reference). To be honest, the whole thing just feels a bit lazy, and comes off as a halfhearted attempt to set an exciting romantic atmosphere (which immediately gets overruled by the boring production and meh vocals). Frankly, “Lipstick” did everything this song does, and did it better.

Overall, “Wild West” is a complete non-starter of a song, combining generic writing with sleepy production and a lackluster vocal delivery. It’s exactly the kind of forgettable song you don’t want to release after a failed single, and it’s going to struggle even to match the mediocre showing of its predecessor. Runaway June and Wheelhouse Records better find a formula that works soon, or you can say “Happy Trails” to this trio’s career.

Rating: 5/10. It’s radio filler and nothing more.