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).
Tami Neilson, “Beyond the Stars” feat. Willie Nelson (written by Delaney Davidson and Tami Neilson)
This is the right way to launch a lead single for an album: Tami Neilson, Willie Nelson and his guitar, and a lush arrangement that sounds like a long-list ‘60s country classic that never was – I am really not a hard sell sometimes. Granted, “Beyond the Stars,” the lead single to Kingmaker, due out on July 15, hits in closer proximity to Neilson’s Don’t Be Afraid album – an examination of grief that may not carry the darker stakes that characterized that album, but still has the emotional weight to show how the pain still lingers.
The general conceit is that Nelson plays the role of Neilson’s late father and offers a counterbalance to her, and while I won’t say the two blend together exceptionally well – mostly just due to their vocal strengths residing in completely different areas – I like the subtle echo added to Nelson’s delivery to hammer in that feeling of him singing from afar to accentuate the role. But let’s be honest: Neilson is truly the show-stopper here, a singer who could easily outmatch most other singers on pure presence alone, but dials things back here to test her emotional range more and anchor in how that grief may not manifest itself in soul-crushing ways like it may have before, but nonetheless lingers and haunts her every now and then. Really, between all of that and that beautifully lush string accompaniment, this really does feel like an unearthed Nashville Sound classic, and it just may be Neilson’s best song yet. Boom.
And now, our newest entries to this week’s airplay top 40:
No. 38 – Zac Brown Band, “Out in the Middle” (written by Zac Brown, Luke Combs, Ben Simonetti, and Jonathan Singleton)
No, really, guys, that last Zac Brown Band album was actually really good … you just wouldn’t know it based on the single choices thus far. And really, this is only a half step removed from a bad bro-country reject from 2014 you might have heard from, say, Brantley Gilbert, especially with the ugly city-versus-country framing that’s played out and was never that great in the first place. Granted, there’s a good tune at the core of this playing off the chunky opening riff and southern-rock swagger; it had the potential to be … well, something different and possibly great, at least. But between Zac Brown sounding like he’s trying way too hard to be cool and a song that’s Jason Aldean-ian in how it sounds like no one is actually having fun at this party, this is, at best, a mindless jam that I can see working for some and fading quickly afterward. There were better far better single choices, and I’m going to hold out hope for them. Bust.
No. 40 – Brett Young, “You Didn’t” (written by Ashley Gorley, Jimmy Robbins, Brett Young, and Jon Nite)
Part of me wants to say Brett Young is yet another disposable male country star taking up space on radio playlists these days, but considering he helped kickstart the whole “boyfriend country” trend years ago that still (unfortunately, in my opinion) permeates said playlists, the other part of me is actually surprised his name seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I mean, like with the Zac Brown Band tune above, there’s a good song here at the core. Yes, the blend of synthetic and real percussion is a bit too slick as a whole, but the acoustics and pedal steel eventually get their time to overtake the mix and dominate it, even if this feels more sensual that regretful. And that brings us to the content, where Young’s character is mature enough to see that his partner doesn’t love him and urges her to leave, rather than nurture a relationship that won’t work. I think the general problem is that, while Young can convey sincerity fairly well, this is a song that requires a more technically stellar vocalist to sell it, and he just isn’t that. Still OK, all things considered, but I can also say Old Dominion tackled this theme better on their latest single.
And now, this week’s throwback review:
Dan Seals, “Love On Arrival” (written by Dan Seals)
I won’t say I’m a connoisseur of Dan Seals’ material, outside of “Bop” and “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” but I do know that this is the first time where the throwback choice is the worst song I review in a single batch. Nothing says “’80s holdover” like those cheap-sounding horns and liquid guitars, but the real head-scratcher is the concept, where Seals receieves a letter from his lover full of acronyms, where he’s tasked to decipher the deeper meaning like it’s a friggin’ Dan Brown nov-she wants sex. That wasn’t difficult to decipher. It’s just so unbelievably corny, and while I guess a better vocalist could have leaned into it with a better self-awareness to make it fun, Seals just plays it all too straightforward. And thus, we’re back to corny. Bust.