Song Review: Tenille Arts, “Back Then, Right Now”

Songs like this are why mainstream country music frustrates me so much.

I consider Tenille Arts to be the better of the two Tenilles on country radio, and I was really on the first two singles of hers that I reviewed, “Call You Names” and “Somebody Like That.” Unfortunately, country radio didn’t share my enthusiasm: “Call You Names” never ended up charting, and “Somebody Like That” took fifteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1. (Yes, there were some behind-the-scenes issues regarding who was promoting the song, but your song is on the chart so long that you end putting two songs in the Top 15 on the Canadian charts in the meantime, the song didn’t have the impact you wanted.) The message came through loud and clear that Arts’s work had to stick closer to the script to have a chance of gaining airplay traction, so that’s exactly what they did: Love, Heartbreak, & Everything In Between was set aside, and “Back Then, Right Now” was released as the U.S. market’s leadoff single for Arts’s upcoming Girl To Girl album. In two words, the song is painfully formulaic, relying on generic buzzwords and a confusing nostalgic wish to ingratiate itself with the American audience, and it’s a significant step down from her earlier work.

It’s sad to see that after Arts’s last producer Alex Kline became the first solo female producer to get a country #1, this time the reins were handed to industry veteran Dave Pittenger instead, and the change doesn’t seem to be for the better. The production here takes the basic guitar-and-drum formula and swaps in a mandolin to lighten the sound, and while it certainly provides a more-positive vibe for the track, it feels a little bit over-the-top in the end (especially when combined with the random synth notes the fill the gaps between the lyrics), The steel guitar is used just enough to satisfy Billboard’s ‘country’ algorithms and doesn’t add much to the song overall, and what sounds like an electrified dobro add a single riff and then heads for the exit. The bright, overly-sweet feel of the mix is an awkward fit for the lyrics: The narrator wishes for a return to a simpler, more-fun time, but there’s no hint of this longing in the sound; instead, it seems like everything’s just fine “right now,” so what’s the point of bringing back “back then”? (The lyrics have an even bigger problem in this regard, but we’ll talk about that a bit later.) In other words, this is a saccharine summer mix on a song that isn’t a good fit for it, and it leaves the listener confused as to what the point of the track actually is.

Arts is a capable vocalist, but she runs into the same problem as the production—in fact, I’d say she’s more responsible for the song’s ill-fitting vibe than the mandolin is. There are no technical issues with the performance, as Arts’s clear, effortless delivery lets her breeze through the track’s moderate range and flow demands without breaking a sweat. The problem, however, is that her tone and demeanor is so positive and upbeat that it makes her call to return to another era ring hollow. Honestly, she’s in a no-win position here: She could bring a bit more seriousness to the table and draw a sharper contrast between the present and the past, but then she’s stuck in the same spot that Blake Shelton was on “I Lived It,” forcefully encouraging a return to the past that isn’t the nirvana they think it is. (Additionally, as a relatively-unknown artist who’s under 30, she doesn’t really have the experience or gravitas to make a case like this, and it makes the listener question if she really knows what she’s asking for.) Arts is simply the wrong singer for this kind of song, and despite the talent and charisma she’s displayed in the past, she just can’t sell this sort of story.

The lyrics, in which the narrator advocates for bringing back the good old days and reveling in the things they enjoyed when they were younger, are where this track completely falls apart. Longtime readers will recall that I personally can’t stand tracks like this, but I’ve got some particular bones to pick with this drivel:

  • The song spends all its time hyping up the past, but it doesn’t talk about the present at all, relying on the listener to fill in the gaps and compare it to their personal situation. If you don’t already think the past is superior to the present, this song won’t sway you with its non-existent argument.
  • The language here relies primarily on overused country clichés (you’ve got your “tailgate sippin’,” “Friday night lights,” “slow ridin’ down a throwback road,” and even jams together random buzzwords like “cold can full moon” and “map-dot hallelujah”), and is mostly just a laundry list of these phrases. Despite a brand-name drops (DQ, Kodak), the scenes themselves are so stock that they probably violate Getty Image copyrights, and they do nothing to hold the audience’s interest.
  • My biggest issue with this song is this: The song uses all the same scenes and turns of phrase that everyone else uses presently, but they use them to describe the past, so the past sounds the exact same as the present…so what’s the point of the song again? Why are we calling for a return to a different time when there’s no apparent difference between then and now? Substitute “Chevrolet” for “Pontiac” and “smartphone cameras” for “Kodak,” and you’ve pretty much got 2021 (or at least pre-pandemic 2020). In other words, this song has absolutely no point and thus fails to even justify its existence.

“Back Then, Right Now” is a poor attempt to salvage a weak attempt at a nostalgia trip and turn it into a lightweight summery track that’s already missed its seasonal window (although after “Somebody Like That,” maybe 19th & Grand is targeting next summer as its peak). Tenille Arts and the producer try a little too hard to sell a vibe that the song doesn’t really justify, and the lyrics are just a grab bag of “country” phrases whose only value is that they might win someone a Buzzword Bingo game. The whole mess feels like a calculated-but-lame effort to crack the commercial algorithm that is country radio and finally get Arts some radio momentum, and that’s probably what irritates me the most about this track. I’m still high on Arts as a performer, but this is another example of a lesser-known artists having to bend to Nashville’s will and play the same old game, and we’re all worse off for it.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Tenille Arts, “Somebody Like That”

With Boyfriend country on the rise, it’s only natural that an answer song would arrive at some point.

Tenille Arts is the better of the two Tenilles in the genre for my money, but the radio doesn’t seem to agree, as her highest peak in the US is a #41 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart and her previous single “Call You Names” didn’t chart at all. Undaunted, Arts and Reviver Records are pushing forward now with “Somebody Like That,” the third single from Arts’s Love, Heartbreak, & Everything In Between album. It’s a track that projects confidence and experience along the lines of what Runaway June has been releasing lately, and it’s yet another example of women beating the stuffing out of men right now when it comes to making quality country songs.

The production here leans heavily towards the pop side of country, but it does a nice job setting the appropriate atmosphere for the track. It opens with spacious synth tones, a restrained drum machine, and a keyboard and banjo-like instrument buried in echoey audio effects parroting each other’s riffs, but it eventually settles into a bright, simple guitar-and-drum mixture (a Wurlitzer piano also pops in and out, and some electric guitars add some sizzle and volume during the chorus). The key is the overall tone of the mix: It’s got a few minor chords here and there to convey the seriousness of the narrator’s quest for love, but the breezy, bubbly vibe of the arrangement and feels-brisker-than-it-is tempo creating a feeling of hope and optimism, and despite all the bad experiences the narrator lists, there’s a strong conviction in the sound that they will eventually find the relationship they desire and deserve, making the lyrics feel less like wishful thinking and more like a eventuality. It’s a great match of sound and subject that really draws the audience in.

Arts’s vocal performance here is a noticeable improvement over “Call You Names,” especially on a technical level. All the issues I had with her flow before are nowhere to be found, and she injects a bit of Hillary Scott-esque power into her usual Carly Pearce impression, adding some much-needed presence to her delivery for this track. What’s even more impressive is that after I called her “a perfect fit as a newly-minted young-adult narrator” in my “Call You Names” review, she’s able to turn around and project a surprising amount of maturity and experience on this track, making her seem believable in this role by convincing the listener that she’s seen her share of, er, stuff over the years, and that she’s willing to wait until the right person comes along. Going from wide-eyed to world-weary in one single and sticking the landing isn’t always easy, so I’m impressed by the amount of flexibility and charisma Arts demonstrates here, and I can’t wait to hear more.

The lyrics tell the time-honored story of a narrator on a longstanding quest for love, and feel like a response to the reheated, overbearing pickup lines coming from songs like “Kinfolks,” “10,000 Hours,” and “I Don’t Know About You.” This narrator has seen every possible way love can come together and fall apart, and they are putting the world on notice that they are not settling for anything less than a strong, long-term relationship. I wouldn’t call the “somebody like that” hook terribly strong, but I like how the verses paint vivid pictures of romance at its worst (“I’ve seen that Cinderella fairytale go up in cigarette smoke, I’ve seen two hearts bet it all and still end up broke”) and its best (referencing her parents and how “they had their share of ups and downs, and I saw the best, and the worst, and the work, and the worth it”). The latter line even dares to break the verse’s rhythmic structure to get its point across, and while it’s a bit jarring, it works in that same weird way that “Lovesick Blues” does by letting the listener quickly recalibrate to keep up. Doing something right is as good as doing something new, and by depicting both sides of the romantic coin in such detail, the writing provides its own credence and believability to enhance the performer’s own gifts.

“Somebody Like That” is a solid, uplifting track that just makes you feel better when you hear it. Nothing’s particularly novel here, but the production is bright and forward-looking, the writing does a great job looking at how love can go right or wrong, and Tenille Arts’s charisma and style behind the mic are a real revelation. While I don’t have terribly high hopes for this song’s radio prospects (sadly, county music has yet to cure its allergy to female artists), this is still a welcome addition to anyone’s playlist, and with any luck this will lead to us hearing more from Arts in the future.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Tenille Arts, “Call You Names”

Call it what you want, but I’d call this surprisingly decent.

Tenille Arts is a Saskatchewan native that has been kicking around Nashville for a couple of years, releasing EPs and albums but not seeming to gain any traction on the radio. (I saw all the ads for “I Hate This” last year, and while the track landed her an appearance on “The Bachelor,” it didn’t generate enough buzz to convince me to review it.) Now, Arts is back with another new single “Call You Names,” and while I’m not expecting much, I also seem to be way ahead of the Mediabase Top 50 right now, so what the heck, I think I’ve got time for check this one out…

Hmmm…

Okay…

I see…

You know what, this is actually pretty good. While perhaps not the most novel topic in the world, it’s a heartfelt, well-executed “ode to Mama” that goes down easy and features a bit more depth than the shallower songs clogging up the charts right now.

The production here is surprisingly sparse, anchored by an acoustic guitar borrowed from Doug Supernaw and buttressed by a restrained percussion line and seasoned with a dash of steel guitar. (An electric guitar and keyboard are hiding in the background as well, with the former stepping forward briefly to offer some notes on the chorus and bridge.) While the volume balance is slightly off (Arts’s vocals seems a bit too high in the mix), it doesn’t detract from the warm, organic atmosphere that the song creates. It’s the same sort of acoustic, reflective feel that you get a lot from songs like this (for example, Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man”), and it does a nice job keeping the focus on the lyrics and tracing the narrator’s journey from naivety to maturity, while also not letting the song bog down or start dragging. It feels like a callback to an earlier sound (which, given the slow move back towards traditional mixes in the genre overall, is a solid marketing strategy), and eschews drawing the listener out of their chair in favor of making them think about the song, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s never a bad thing.

I hear a lot of Carly Pearce in Arts’s voice, and while I haven’t been terribly impressed with Pearce’s body of work since “Every Little Thing,” Arts at leasts manages to tap into that same vein of charismatic hindsight. While her flow can be a little awkward and choppy (the writing admittedly bears some blame here) and while I’m not always a fan of her decision-making when she decides to hold a syllable for an extra beat or not, she still demonstrates more than enough charisma to sell the song and come across as believable. She’s a perfect fit as a newly-minted young-adult narrator just starting to appreciate their mother’s wisdom, and uses her voice to convey her feelings expertly (I like the way her voice fades out as she calls her mother lame, as well as the added exasperation on the line about getting wine stains out of carpet). In other words, she does a great job capturing the listener’s attention and pulling them into the story, so much so that I’m wondering if I should go back and revisit “I Hate This” just to see what I missed.

Speaking of the story, there actually is a story here for a change! Character arcs and narrative progression are in short supply on the radio these days, but here the narrator reflects on how they interacted with their mother as a teenager and how angry they were towards her, and contrasts the scenes with their strong, positive relationship today. Love for Mama is a tried-and-true country trope, but I like how the writer try to freshen things up a bit with extra details (extending the overdone cigarette and curfew vignettes with the narrator’s complaints to friends, the aforementioned wine-spill moment…in truth, the narrator is lucky; I think my first call of this sort was “How do I unclog this stupid toilet?”). While it’s not the tightly-constructed song in the world (there are a few moments where it puts Arts in a tough spot by trying to cram too many words into a line), the sentiment and story progression still shine through, and they allow Arts and the producer to push the song higher and make it feel meaningful to the audience.

I may have missed the boat the first time, but “Call You Names” is a pretty good introduction to Tenille Arts (in fact, I’d call her the better Tenille in the genre right now, compared to Tenille Townes’s mediocre “Somebody’s Daughter”). It may be a mushy love letter to mothers everywhere, but the sound gives it warmth and texture and Arts gives it feeling and conviction. While it’s a tough slog rowing against the headwinds of country music’s allergy to female artists, I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing more of this on the airwaves in the near future.

Rating: 7/10. It’s basically Rule 63 applied to “My Old Man,” and that’s not a bad place to start.