Quick Draw is a recurring feature where I cover multiple new country airplay singles in a gauntlet style format.
Kelsea Ballerini – “homecoming queen?” (written by Kelsea Ballerini, Nicolle Gaylon and Jimmy Robbins)
If music fans are guilty of anything, it’s judging a book by its cover. For country music fans, that can fit into multiple scenarios surrounding authenticity and the like, but since this is still the 2010s, the conversation will, of course, circle around to bro-country. It’s almost ironic that Kelsea Ballerini rose to prominence as that trend reached its saturation period, playing into it from the opposite perspective in an unfortunate way. But what soured her to many country fans was her heavier pop country sound, and she hasn’t tried to mask that on singles like “Legends” or especially “Miss Me More.” The thing is, though, Ballerini is a smarter songwriter than she’s given credit for, enough to where I can say she showed tremendous growth on her sophomore album.
Still, the criticisms of her style are somewhat justified; she does, after all, play to the same teenage love perspective that Taylor Swift did a decade ago. But Ballerini has grown up with her music much quicker, often speaking in retrospect to those kinds of situations rather than in the moment, lending her songs an underrated maturity. And her new single, “homecoming queen?,” is probably the most direct example of that – a probe of the life of a nameless “homecoming queen” and daring them to show their real self to the world. While it will certainly be the single to make her critics take notice, I wish I liked it just a little more than I do. The production is probably the most refreshing element for a Ballerini single, with little more support than a light brush of acoustic guitar that’s as organic as a single of hers has ever been. Eventually, some watery electric guitars enter, creating enough atmosphere for the mix to have room to breathe and let the message simmer.
Lyrically, the song takes the interesting risk of looking at things from the “villian’s” perspective, but there’s just something about the song that screams as “unfinished” in this department. The sentiment essentially boils down to “everything’s going to be alright” and “be yourself,” which, while admirable, never really succeeds in gripping the listener due to a lack of greater details or a more fleshed-out story. Another verse or bridge would have likely helped wrap the song up a little better, especially when the abrupt ending is fairly unflattering. Still, this is also probably the most sincere performance from Ballerini, even if the song doesn’t test her technical range. Moreover, she actually succeeds in making the listener have empathy for the opposite side. (Light to decent 7/10)
Little Big Town – “Over Drinking” (written by Cary Barlowe, Jesse Frasure, Ashley Gorley, and Hillary Lindsey)
No offense to Little Big Town, but I think I’ll take “The Daughters” over this.
As the story goes, the band has one of the strangest careers in country music history (Kyle Akers does a wonderful job mapping out their career here), nabbing one huge hit before tanking their momentum with a slew of poor single choices. I wouldn’t say they’re a band that’s innovative by any means, but they have good ears for smart songs that manage to push the envelope in some fashion. And now that the second single from their upcoming Nightfall record is on the way, this is simply an example of hearing a topic that’s been done better elsewhere multiple times before, which is something I can’t usually say about this band.
“Over Drinking” opts for the same blend of retro soul and throwback country that’s been prevalent in some fashion ever since Chris Stapleton exploded in the industry four years ago, but it all feels like it’s too much. The mix itself is nice, with plenty of rich piano and steel guitar for accent marks while a low-end electric guitar carries the mix with a heavier presence than I expected. The percussion is a bit too heavy for my liking, but what else is new in mainstream country music? Still, it’s a mix that has a bright energy to it that offers plenty of flavor and texture while being tastefully unique. Lead singer Karen Fairchild is also impressive as usual, especially when she’s got enough fierce charisma to sell this song with the confidence boost it’s trying to sell. Yet that brings us to the lyrical content, which is admittedly just “OK” rather than stellar. The concept of getting over a relationship isn’t the most remarkably new topic in the world (even Kelsea Ballerini, another artist reviewed in this post, offered a better version of this with “Miss Me More” last year), and the lyrics don’t really do enough heavy lifting to make it worthwhile. The song simply never peels back the darker layers to reveal how far the narrator has sunk, and without those larger stakes, it just doesn’t offer enough reason for the listener to care one way or the other. And while the production is good in general, it feels too murky to really sell this song with the kind of kinetic energy it’d need to transcend its lyrical misgivings. Decent, but not great. (Decent 6/10)
Jason Aldean – “We Back” (written by
your average third grader Tyler Hubbard, Jordan Schmidt, Brett Warren and Brad Warren)
I mean, say what you will about Jason Aldean in general, but he showed genuine improvement on some recent singles. Of course, the release of his latest single, “We Back,” only reaffirms that Aldean could make genuinely compelling music if he wanted to … except he’s content just shoveling out the same material you’ve heard from him before, eroding any notion to ever want to call him an “artist.” On premise alone, though, “We Back” just doesn’t make sense for Aldean. He might say he hasn’t released anything loud and rocking in awhile, but this is fairly indistinguishable from a good chunk of his catalog, and for crying out loud, his last album was only from April 2018!
But as for the song itself, it almost feels pointless reviewing what is, essentially, a commercial for stupidity over a well-crafted song. The electric guitars are about as formless and watered-down as they’ve ever been on an Aldean song, thus also proving that, if you want a rock star in mainstream country music, why not go with Eric Church or Ashley McBryde instead? The mixture of real and synthetic percussion is another frustrating element of Aldean’s recent singles that’s returned, and all of this adds up to a song with darker tones than one would expect, but also one that’s gimmicky rather than epic. Granted, part of that also extends toward Aldean’s knack for taking his material way too seriously, which isn’t the kind of attitude you want for a mindless party tune. As for the lyrical content, this is the kind of song that people who don’t like country music think about when asked why they don’t like country music. The rural pride pandering and bro-country tropes should have stayed back in 2014 where they belong, and again, the message of claiming to be “back” doesn’t really work when you release a new song as soon as your current single peaks on the charts. Overall, I just put more effort into this review than Aldean or his writers put into this song. (Decent 3/10)