Ward Davis, “Another Bad Apple” (written by Clint Park, Greg Jones, and Ward Davis)
Fresh off 2020’s divorce-fueled Black Cats and Crows, Ward Davis returns with a song that fits right within his wheelhouse, and that’s not a bad thing. He’s got a full-bodied, rich timbre to his voice to justify some admittedly conventional southern-rock tones that still have the snarl to work well enough. And as for why he’s entering into more hard-charged territory, it’s because this is basically a song about a history of family screw-ups. I wish this was anchored more in fuller storytelling over seedier outlaw swagger that never quite coalesces – especially when Davis is the sort of poet who can make a song like this a gut-punch if he wants to – but it’s still a pretty solidly bleak song in tried-and-true country music tradition. This just seems to just be a one-off release for now, so here’s to hoping for a new project soon.
Jake Owen, “Up There Down Here” (written by Summer Overstreet, Travis Wood, and Zach Dyer)
OK, I don’t know what Jake Owen’s strategy is for whatever he’s got coming next. “Best Thing Since Backroads” was really only an airplay hit (which doesn’t say much in 2022), and with the string of singles he’s released since with no indication of an album on the way, I’m not sure any of it bodes well for the future. In the meantime, we have another radio single … that’s about as oddly dour as its predecessor, meaning it makes very little sense for Owen’s usually upbeat style. I do like that the foundation is fairly organic with the plucky mandolin and well-rounded bass, even if this slides into distinct boyfriend country territory. And while this tries to play things darker by suggesting our character has a rough past and that his partner saves him (a gift from God, too, in true mainstream country fashion these days), the writing mostly operates on checklist clichés and never feels justified to follow through all the way with that conceit. It’s fine enough, but I wouldn’t mind Owen getting back to sounding he’s actually having fun with his music again.
Julie Roberts feat. Jamey Johnson, “Music City’s Killing Me” (written by Ray LaMontagne)
You may or may not know this was originally a Ray LaMontagne song called “New York City’s Killing Me.” You may or may not know Julie Roberts had a fantastic top twenty single nearly 20 years ago called “Break Down Here.” Hell, the years are piling up and you may or may not even know of Jamey Johnson’s legacy at this point.
Anyway, with all that in mind, this is the lead single to Roberts’ upcoming Where I’m Stayin’ Tonight album, and with the bar set extremely high for songs about the soul-sucking entity that is the country music industry, you’d think this would enter that lane with that title; it’s a little disappointing that it doesn’t. Maybe it’s because it’s more of a straightforward breakup song, where Nashville is just the setting for where the heartbreak happens and the references, though fitting in needing to escape the noise and drive back to the country for solitude, just don’t quite have the same level of detail because of how obviously interchangeable that setting is in the writing. I actually do think this works better as a duet and that both Roberts and Johnson have surprisingly good chemistry together – two singers who’ve proven before that they can sell weary resignation well – but this is more in the “like but don’t love” category for me.
Emily Scott Robinson, “Built On Bones” (written by Emily Scott Robinson)
Emily Scott Robinson sliding into witchy territory for a Halloween-inspired side project really doesn’t come across as much of a surprise – not when you consider what she did with last year’s American Siren.
But, I mean, it’s still awesome, especially when she and collaborators Alisa Amador and Violet Bell have the sort of soft-spoken echoing tone that could be described as haunting – literally. More specifically, this is the start of a song cycle for the Witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, so the idea of a songwriter creating her own prophecy and nailing the creaking ominous tension with not only bloodstained content, but also a tense restraint eventually fleshed-out by strings and violin, is awesome. How her version plays out remains to be seen, but this is right up my alley. Boom.
Brit Taylor, “Cabin in the Woods” (written by Brit Taylor and Jason White)
What will catch the most initial attention is that Sturgill Simpson production credit, but I’ve got Brit Taylor on my radar because of a fantastic duet she did with Dee White last year called “At Least There’s No Babies.” And I can see what they’re going for with this new single – a slightly swampy, homespun track about … well, retreating to a cabin in the woods. But the groove feels really choppy and overmixed and doesn’t balance well with Taylor’s more relaxed tone, which is probably more fitting for the content itself anyway. Even then, it’s just a bit too cutesy for me.