The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox is a weekly feature in which we review one single – either a standalone entity or one from an upcoming album that interests us – as well as anything new to Billboard’s Country Airplay top 40, and a throwback single (currently exploring No. 1 country singles of the ‘90s).
As I noted last week, my backlog is starting to fill up quick. So, in the spirit of keeping up with the rat race, I’ll be reviewing two singles for the first section of this feature, rather than just the one. Anyway, onward!
John Moreland, “Ugly Faces” (written by John Moreland)
John Moreland is beginning to occupy a weird space, the sort of singer-songwriter who started out in very spare acoustic country-leaning folk before pivoting toward a more rock-influenced sound on 2017’s Big Bad Luv and then again toward electronic ambiance for 2020’s LP5, all while retaining that core singer-songwriter core. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but by retaining that functional core and building off of it rather than initiating a complete sonic shift, I think this pivot has worked well for Moreland thus far. And considering LP5 was one of my favorite albums of 2020, I’m certainly not against hearing an extension of that sound ahead of Moreland’s newest album slated for July, Birds in the Ceiling.
Granted, new single “Ugly Faces” really does feel like part two of that experiment, which isn’t a bad thing, outside of the busier overall production that’s starting to overtake control a bit, at least in regards to the percussion line. But in keeping it and the electronic elements low-key and secondary alongside the gorgeous-as-ever piano and bass, that warmth manages to creep in regardless, especially when lyrics and themes are still the biggest selling point to any Moreland song. And in framing this as a hard conversation to himself in the mirror, I could argue that this is a song inspired by events of the past few years, at least in regards to capturing that general feeling of being stuck in a mental rut and wanting so desperately to break free of that viscous cycle. But that’s a theme that’s frighteningly relatable at any point in time, and I like that Moreland frames it as a head game he’s playing with himself that’s imposing a false roadblock for him he knows he can overcome with time. He may be a tougher sell these days, but Moreland remains an excellent writer, and Birds in the Ceiling is off to a great start. Boom.
Zach Bryan, “Something in the Orange” (written by Zach Bryan)
Real talk here: I remain a general fan of Zach Bryan and his weirdly unexpected and rapid rise that’s been exciting to witness in the independent country world. But that upcoming 34-song album? Yeah … probably going to skip out on that; I don’t want to wade through that many songs from any artist in one sitting.
To an extent, though, I get it. Bryan’s story and more stripped back approach to production balanced with raw songwriting has attracted a very loyal following, even as he’s evolved beyond it to incorporate more instrumentation into the mix. His approach allows for a more unconventional release schedule ahead of his newest album and isn’t that far removed from Elisabeth, even if it will, ultimately, be fan-service in the most blatant way possible and possibly not the best starting point for his work.
I’d still like to talk about a single from it, though, and with “Something in the Orange” being the latest release, this is good of a starting point as any. But I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve heard Bryan tread this type of emotionally burnt-out territory before, but this isn’t clicking with me as much as I’d like it to. For one, though I do like the Z&E version that incorporates some slightly heavier acoustic strumming and very welcome harmonica and piano to flesh out the mix, the commitment to keeping that lo-fi aesthetic that propelled him to superstardom reveals the lack of greater dynamics in the actual compositional approach, at least to me. It was fine before when he was working within obvious limitations as a completely independent artist, but I kept hoping for a bit more out of the song itself that the delivery and writing just didn’t quite deliver. Maybe it’s also because this is yet another Bryan heartbreak song in a long line of them to brutally examine and question both his and his partner’s actions in its downfall. To be clear, he’s really great at turning inward and being confessional in regards to his emotional psyche; there’s always something of an isolationist streak at the core of his writing I tend to enjoy. But I think I end up just circling back to my aforementioned criticisms and hoping for more from Bryan. It’s clearly still working for him – I’m just not sure it’s working for me anymore.
And now, our newest entries to this week’s airplay top 40:
No. 38 – Brett Eldredge, “Songs About You” (written by Ben West, Brett Eldredge, and Jessie Jo Dillon)
I was pleasantly surprised to see Brett Eldredge’s name back in the top 40, given that it looked like he was going in a very different direction with his career with the excellent Sunday Drive from 2020, and had released a few scattered singles at the beginning of this year. But in Nashville, it all circles back around to country radio, which leaves us with the title track to his upcoming album slated for July. Right away I’ll say that I miss the warmth brought to that album in comparison to what we get here, which is a noticeably smoother take on the same general country-soul fusion that’s become a hallmark of Eldredge’s sound and, at its core, still remains an asset for him. This certainly doesn’t adopt the typical worst tendencies you’d expect from a single out of Nashville these days, but there’s nothing especially notable about the composition, and if anything, it’s Eldredge carrying it and making the most out of it anyway.
Granted, part of me wants to argue that a languid, soulful touch might not have been the best fit for a song about how old songs he hears remind him of a past relationship he’s trying to move on from, but there’s a self-awareness to that in how runs through a gambit of different emotions when he hears them that’s mostly bittersweet at its core. And you’ve still got that old crooner in him that chooses to reference older songs and adds a bit of character to the writing. If I’m being honest, I think he tackled this theme a bit better with “Then You Do” off of the aforementioned Sunday Drive, but if this is the more accessible cut that’ll get him back on track, I’m all for it, because it’s very solid. Boom.
No. 40 – Jimmie Allen, “Down Home” (written by Jimmie Allen, Rian Ball, Cameron Bedell, and Tate Howell)
Full disclosure: I’ve already written about this single over with my colleagues at Country Universe, and the long and short of that review is, I like Jimmie Allen as a performer, but I keep hoping for stronger material from him. Rather than rehash old thoughts, though, I’d actually like to mention that this has grown a fair bit on me since that initial review. It’s still fairly generic in its production and overall theme, but there’s enough unique personal details in the writing to give it a distinct enough character, and Allen is a very likable performer who sounds genuinely sincere and hopeful in his attempt to show his late father the life he’s made for himself. And I actually quite like the more positive spin on the tone and writing a lot more now because of it. I still think Allen is capable of pushing a bit harder, but this is solidly likable for now.
And now, this week’s throwback review:
Travis Tritt, “Help Me Hold On” (written by Pat Terry and Travis Tritt)
We’ve already covered Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Garth Brooks for this feature, and now we arrive at the first chart-topping hit from the final “class of ‘89” member, a performer who, at his peak, toed the line between ballads and southern-rock barn-burners effectively. He’d become more known for the latter in time, but it’s telling that his first two big hits were tender ballads in which he dropped his guard and let his emotional vulnerability shine. To be fair, he’s great at both, but I’ve always preferred Tritt’s voice on tracks like these, equally soulful as it is stirring in pulling the bulk of the weight for a love song that’s serviceable enough in the writing and framing. There’s just enough cracks in the relationship to let some slight drama creep through and allow Tritt’s performance to really shine, but ultimately, it’s just a great ballad with an even better hook. Boom.