Sorry, but I Don’t hate Keith Urban’s “Female”

Rating: 5/10

I tweeted during the CMA’s that Keith Urban’s latest single, titled “Female,” was “quite a good song actually.” I didn’t say it was country, and I’d like to make two things clear here–one, Urban’s forsaking of his guitar talent to produce pop/adult contemporary stuff like this irks me beyond any semblance of reason, especially as a proud owner of his first six records, (you know, when he actually tried), and two, after being forced to hear this from virtually everywhere this past week, my opinion of the song has gone down some. Now it’s just there for me. It just exists. But apparently the fashion among everyone is to hate it with all vehemence and even, for some, to find it offensive. And as a woman, I’d like to add some equilibrium to that argument.

Even among people who hate this with all passion, there is a consensus that Keith’s heart was in the right place trying to say something and speak out about the recent rash of sexual assault claims and the systematic discrimination of women in general. And let me tell you, we need men to speak out about this. I keep seeing people say versions of, “well, the industry would make more of a statement by actually playing more women,” and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that this becomes an empty gesture if it’s not backed up by the actual inclusion of more women in say, the very industry in which Keith Urban makes his living. But having said that, if only women write about this and speak about this, nothing will change because in many cases, it’s mostly women who will listen. We need men to be up front about this, and I applaud Keith Urban for showing the leadership to do that, not to mention for recording this and releasing it in a timely manner when mainstream Nashville notoriously takes forever to transition songs from a pen and paper to the final product.

Keith Urban’s colossal mistake? Not actually writing the song himself, but recording a song penned in part by Shane McAnally. The verses in this song are actually quite good, and they address real, specific issues like how people say women deserved what they got because they wore tight skirts, or how many Christian men excuse their behavior toward their wives and other women because God made Adam first. The problem is that listastic thing characteristic of writers like McAnally and so many others who write by committee, coming out in full force to infect the chorus by throwing out a bunch of descriptors of women…oh, and some words like “suit of armor” and “river wild” that have absolutely nothing to do with women at all. It’s hearing this all week that has taken the song down for me, and yet it’s that part which will probably give this song its only fighting chance at radio. Still, it can’t be denied that country radio, an industry undeniably rampant with sexism, will hesitate to play this, and again, the fact that Keith Urban doesn’t give a shit about that should be commended. But it’s the efforts of McAnally and his cowriters to still make this song radio-friendly that deprive it of any substance, or at least that make the parts with substance somehow matter less.

So, I could take or leave this song when it comes down to it. It’s there, it exists, it stands at a 5 rating, and i daresay it’d be a 6 if it in any way, shape, or form resembled country. I don’t hate it. I don’t find it offensive, as some people have, for its use of the word “female,” although I understand how this can be offensive in certain contexts and by certain people. I don’t find the descriptors in the chorus stereotypical so much as lazy; it’s just a list of words thrown in there to, like I say, try to make this work on radio. So, it’s a great effort by Keith Urban, and it falls short in the writing, and ultimately, a song that could have said a lot, and indeed does manage to say something worthwhile in its verses, doesn’t really execute all the way through. That said, the vitriol this song is receiving is unnecessary. It’s forgettable, and perhaps a missed opportunity by Keith Urban, but it’s not the horrific mess some would claim it to be, at least not for this listener.

Written by: Shane McAnally, Nicolle Galyon, Ross Copperman

Album Review: Dori Freeman–Letters Never Read

Rating: 8.5/10

Dori Freeman was one of the coolest discoveries of 2016 for me, coming from out of nowhere and making an absolutely killer debut album. Bringing an Appalachian sound to her brand of country, she displayed a unique talent for taking the traditional and timeless and keeping it forward-thinking and fresh. And not just traditional country either, but vintage pop, bluegrass, and folk as well, proving that the best artists aren’t trapped by genre lines but simply write and perform material that suits them and their individual talents.

Read: Album Review: Dori Freeman Impresses With Her Self-Titled Debut

It seems one of Dori’s talents is a knack for simplicity, and another is instinctively knowing what works for her. IN fact, this record literally feels like a continuation of that first project, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It doesn’t feel like leftovers from the first record or seem as if it’s lacking something new to expand Dori’s sound; rather, it’s like a comforting reminder that Dori Freeman is going to be an artist you can count on for quality music. She’s still mixing up the styles, still singing a lot about love, and even has another a cappella tune on this album in the cover of “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” an old Appalachian song written by her grandfather. So yeah, it’s literally not breaking any new ground, but when something was flawless the first time, why deviate from it?

As mentioned, love is certainly a prevailing theme running through this record. Sometimes, it comes from a place of sheer contentment. “If I Could Make You My own” is sweet and simple in its delivery, and sung by anyone else, the poetic lyrics might come across as sappy and overdone, but Freeman exudes a sincerity that just makes it work to perfection. The same goes for “Turtle Dove.” This one leans more toward that folk/vintage pop style than the former, more traditional country song, and again, it’s delivered with such sincerity that you can’t help but believe the sentiments Dori is expressing.

But more often than not, we’re dealing with the darker sides of love and relationships. “Lovers on the Run” confronts men who make excuses for walking away because they can’t commit, asserting that one day, they will be lonely. This one feels a bit like “Go on Lovin'” from her debut album, but this is told in a more general sense rather than addressed to a specific person. “Just Say it Now” finds Dori confronting the impending end of a relationship and saying that she’s about to be back where she was before it began, “wondering what men are ever looking for.”

And then we have the stunning pair of songs, “That’s all Right” and “Cold Waves.” The former sees Freeman in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic; “you’re passing out, and I’m turning blue.” That natural thing in her voice which sells the sap on “Turtledove” also captures the desperation and heartbreak perfectly here. But despite that, she sings from a place of defiance as she tells the man, “You’ll be the only one whose cross you cannot bear” and looks ahead to when she won’t be with him anymore. She does eventually move on, as conveyed on the album’s crown jewel, “Cold Waves.” This is where the album all comes together, as she’s found a new love, presumably the one from “Turtle Dove,” but the previous abuse still haunts her every day. This is a fantastic song, describing the ongoing pain that she must deal with for the rest of her life as “cold waves” and “blue haze” that surrounds her and makes it hard to push through on some days. Though she is now happy, she will always carry this around with her like a weight, and she prays that her daughter will never know this type of heartache. This has to be one of the best songs written on this subject because it neither paints the abuse as something that permanently debilitated her nor as something from which she can ever completely move on. It’s probably the most realistic song about this that I have ever heard, and as I say, it serves to bring the different parts of the record together as well.

This album is indeed simple, and at only twenty-eight minutes of music, it can seem a little short, especially when four of these ten offerings are covers. But it’s also hard to second guess either the brilliant bluegrass arrangement of “Over There” or the aforementioned “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ dog.” These two songs placed in the heart of the record really add that wonderful Appalachian flavor unique to Dori Freeman and so often overlooked in modern country, both mainstream and independent. And let me just add, how many vocalists in the independent scenes can sing a cappella like this? appreciate the vocal quality of Dori freeman, her smooth, undoubtedly country tone, her ability to enunciate clearly, and understand what it takes to pull off stuff like this song because many of her peers simply couldn’t. “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is definitely the weakest of the covers; it’s a solid song and a good performance from Dori, but it seems slightly out of place on the record. I wouldn’t call it filler by any stretch, but it just doesn’t really go with the rest of the material here.

In short, this is another great album from Dori Freeman, and she continues to make her mark as a rising artist in the independent country/Americana realms. Her commitment to the old styles and especially to the Appalachian sound is refreshing and indeed sets her apart from many of her counterparts. This is a sparse, simple record, yes, but with Dori Freeman, this is all it takes; in fact, less is often more. It’s not strictly country, but because of her diversity with several different styles, there’s really something here for everyone. Definitely recommend checking this one out.

Buy the Album

Revisiting the Honeycutters’ Self-Titled Album

Back in June, I reviewed the new self-titled release from Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters. While I thought it was a pretty decent record with some standout songs, there was one major problem. It was mid-tempo and somber all the way through, and I made the comment that it would sound better in October, even advising people to only listen to specific songs at the time. It’s a release that, while I could see its potential, wasn’t right for June. There’s a certain mood around it, started with the opening song where Amanda Platt sings about the days getting colder and fall setting in, that just didn’t work in the summer.

So I did what I advised everyone else to do; I waited until the fall to listen to it again. I’ve revisited some songs, but I waited till now to really absorb the entire album again. And if you’re wondering why it’s November and not October, well, when it’s still 90 degrees in Oklahoma in October, there’s not really a fall atmosphere. But now autumn has finally found its way here, at least for the moment, and just as those colder days are better suited for pumpkin and vanilla candles than for island scents, they also bring about different atmospheres for music. Artists tend to release more serious music during this time, and indeed, my initial sentiment was that this record should have come out right about now.

So after listening to it again? This album is definitely better this time of year. There were quite a few little details I missed in the songwriting the first few times around that I absorbed now because frankly, I wasn’t nearly as bored. The mid-tempo songs throughout the record dragged this album down in June, but they just serve to make this relaxing now. Amanda Anne Platt remains one of the better vocalists in independent music, a fact I noted when I reviewed this, but more careful listening also reveals her talent as a songwriter and melodic composer. The mood is more introspective than somber as you start to really absorb the lyrics, and some of these songs are even quite joyous. The thing is, even when she’s content, on songs like “Rare Thing” and “Birthday Song,” the atmosphere created by the production still seems a bit melancholy. But Amanda Platt is actually content for much of this record, a fact you begin to uncover as you dig deeper into the lyrics. Actually, “Rare Thing” is one I underappreciated the first time, probably because it is toward the end of the record and started blending in to all the other mid-tempo stuff. But it’s a good example of a song that really stood out in a different way for me this time around.

This has pretty much gone from a decent, but kind of boring record at times to a rather pleasant, relaxing listen. It wasn’t right in the summer, but now, it’s working pretty well. Had it come out now it would have gotten a light 8 from me instead of the hesitant 7 it received back in June. So, if you’re someone who listens to different types of music based on their mood and gravitates toward different sounds in different seasons, I invite you to revisit this. If you found this boring or lacking energy the first time, well, it still doesn’t have a ton of energy, but it’s far from boring. You just need the right atmosphere and frame of mind to appreciate it.

P.S. “Eden” and “The Guitar Case” are still fantastic songs.

Album Review: Lilly Hiatt–Trinity Lane

Rating: 7/10

Since there’s only one new album I even care about listening to this week, it seems that now would be a good time to start clearing albums from the back burner, especially since we’re getting near the end of 2017, and everyone seems to be working on those infamous lists. And the first one I have to get to is the latest record from Lilly Hiatt, released back in August and one of the most fascinating records I’ve heard this year.

The interesting thing about this album is it’s a mood record; no, not in the sense of say, the latest records from Sam Outlaw or Willie Nelson, not slow and easy and relaxing. And not in the sense of something like the Shinyribs album either, where you have to be in the mood to not take anything too seriously in order to really enjoy it to the fullest. Trinity Lane is an emotionally charged affair, a breakup record that captures all the ups and downs and in-betweens felt during that period, and just as Lilly Hiatt had to be in a certain head space to create it, you have to be in a certain mood to appreciate it. I’ve given this one many listens before forming my final opinion, and my conclusion is that if you’re happy, in a generally good mood, this album goes down to a 5 or a 6. It’s when you can empathize with Lilly and understand somewhat the emotional state from which she’s writing and singing that you really begin to appreciate this album.

As I say, this is a breakup record, and the beauty of it is that it manages to detail all the different emotions, even contradicting ones. For example, she’s apologizing for being, in her own words, a bitch on “The Night David Bowie Died,” yet saying that she gave the relationship her all in “Everything I had.” Here, she seems to deny any responsibility she might have claimed in the former song. Sometimes you see her trying to move on and fix her own problems, like in the title track, and other times, she’s emotionally out of touch and obsessing over her ex, as told in the song “Different, I Guess.” She seems heartbroken over the breakup often, but at other times, she seems to embrace freedom. “Records,” one of the album’s standouts, details how music can help us through things like this, and Hiatt states in that song, “I’ll take lonely if it means free.” The biggest strength of this album is that it depicts all these different stages of dealing with the breakup; real life is like that, and sometimes our emotions change daily. I’m sorry Lilly Hiatt had to go through all this to make this record, but it produced some truly cool and interesting art.

That said, the album as a whole is more interesting than some of the songs. A few of them stand out individually, and this is one of the rare times I’ll list the standout tracks for the album at the bottom because if you don’t choose to listen to the entire thing, some of the songs don’t stand as well on their own. “I Wanna Go Home” is a good example of this, as she’s traveling around searching for answers. It adds a good angle to the overall story, but it’s kind of forgettable on its own. “Different, I Guess” is also vital to the story, but the melody is just strange, and she tries to cram a whole bunch of words into the chorus that shouldn’t fit there which makes it one of the more awkward tracks. “All Kinds of People” is pretty forgettable too, as it doesn’t really flatter her voice and is done better by other songs on the album.

But there are also moments on this album that manage to stand out even apart from the overarching story. The aforementioned title track can get stuck in your head quite easily, as well as “The Night David Bowie Died.” It’s easy to relate to these as well, and you feel a bit less like an observer and more like you share a common ground with Hiatt on these tracks. “Sucker” and “So Much You Don’t Know” create a great moment toward the end of the record, as Lilly veers more into the territory of self-reflection, wistful that she didn’t get to show her ex parts of her life that were important to her. In the latter, she’s wishing he asked about her, saying that she always was the one inquiring about his life. You get the sense that as the album progresses, she’s realizing the issues that had been present in the relationship. These two tracks stand out above the overarching theme as well because again, they are more universally relatable and not just unique to Lilly’s situation. We all want to share certain parts of ourselves with someone and have them care enough to want to know those details about us.

This is a fascinating record and has been easily the hardest thing for me to assign a rating to in 2017. The album as a whole is going to appeal to those who like darker, more emotional music, and if you’re not in the right mood to enjoy it, I would recommend just listening to specific songs. It’s also not strictly country; rather, it falls into the Americana realm, so if you are looking for more traditional stuff, this probably won’t be your thing either. “So Much You Don’t know” is pretty country, but then again, “The Night David Bowie Died” isn’t even close. So it’s not necessarily an album that I think everyone reading this will appreciate, but for the right audience, it’s quite a good one, and there are some great songs that many of you will enjoy regardless.

Standout Tracks: “Trinity Lane,” “The Night David Bowie Died,” “Records,” “Imposter,” “Sucker,” “So Much You Don’t Know”

Buy the Album

Album Review: Carly Pearce–Every Little Thing

Rating: 5/10

What, you gave this a lower rating than Kelsea Ballerini? I know that’s going to be the reaction from many here, and let me just say, Carly Pearce is definitely going for an actual blend of pop and country, as opposed to shamelessly marketing straight pop songs as country. And you know what? It literally works on half this album and fails on the other half.

We start this record with an electronic beat that dissolves into “Hide the Wine.” Carly’s trying to hide all the alcohol so she won’t be tempted by an old flame, and the lyrics are quite catchy. But this song gets somewhat ruined by production, and it’s hard to call this anything other than straight pop. You get the sense Carly Pearce is not exactly trying to go for this, but the producers wanted to make sure she opened it with something more mainstream.

And then we get “Careless” and “Every Little Thing,” and that unique, cool thing about Carly starts to shine through. It seems her country instrument of choice is the dobro, and it’s cool actually to hear it featured together with more modern, pop-leaning textures. It works very well on “Careless,” as she is telling her ex to get lost because he is just “the boy who cries love.” And “Every Little Thing,” although definitely overproduced, allows her to shine as well. I prefer the more stripped-down live version of this, and I tend to think that’s what Carly Pearce intended for the song, but still, this song remains understated enough to let her vocal talent come through. She’s a good emotive interpreter, as we’ll see several more times on this album, and Nashville should let her use this to her advantage. It’s proven it can work because “Every Little Thing” did get the on the Verge treatment, but it has also sold well and resonated with the public.

But we can’t take too many chances like the title track, and that’s evidenced by the next two selections, “Everybody Gonna Talk” and “Catch Fire.” The former is one of those ever-present “let them say what they want about our relationship” songs that never really tells us why the relationship is so taboo in the first place. This is okay for what it is, but again, it’s not showing off Carly’s strengths as a vocalist. And “Catch Fire” is one of the worst things here–it’s some sort of obnoxious hookup song, and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I have no use for this shit anymore. It was pointed out on another forum that they probably wanted Pearce to show attitude, and that’s painfully evident here, but she just sounds out of place.

Equilibrium returns with “If My Name Was Whiskey,” and once again, you can see more of Pearce’s vulnerability and vocal delivery. The song is saying that if she’d been whiskey, her ex wouldn’t have left her and would do anything to keep her. It’s a moment where the blend of modern and traditional is done very well, and you can see that if they allow Carly to take more chances and really develop her sound, her style could be unique and perhaps find favor with both mainstream and independent fans.

Then we get “Color,” another obnoxious, overly perky song, this one about love. This one is just as useless as “Catch Fire.” But again, Pearce shows more of her potential in “I Need a Ride Home.” This one is overproduced at the beginning, but eventually works, and the lyrics are clever, as it’s about needing a ride back home to her childhood, as opposed to another drunk party song.

And then the rest of the album is just sort of meh–we’ve had outstanding and horrific in equal parts, and now it settles into just okay. “Doin’ it Right” isn’t bad, and her vocals do manage to stand out some, but again, it’s too much pop, instead of the cool blend of pop and country pulled off so well on some of these songs. “Feel Somethin'” and “Honeysuckle” are just pretty unremarkable, and yes, suffer from overproduction. “You Know Where to Find Me” does capture more of Pearce’s individuality–it’s not as much of a standout as some of the others, but it does manage to separate itself and showcase Carly’s voice. And then we get “Dare Ya” for the closer, which, although I’ll give it credit for featuring more pop country instrumentation, suffers from truly stupid lyrics. This one’s essentially “Catch Fire” Part 2, except that she says she’s not going to make the first move because “I’m a lady like that.” IN a way, this is almost more obnoxious than the “attitude” on “Catch Fire.” That said, nothing past track 8 here really does anything for me significantly either way.

So, overall, this is a mixed effort. It’s literally half promising and half discouraging. You can tell that Carly Pearce made an effort to bring songs of substance to this project, and you can also see that she can blend pop and country well if given the chance. But there’s also the mark of Nashville and pop producers littered all over this record, and often, Carly’s individuality is forsaken for misguided attempts at popularity. But let her develop–“Every Little Thing” is selling well, and it’s not straight pop. It’s a pop country ballad. It’s got a dobro solo, for God’s sake. Music row needs to learn from this and let Carly Pearce become a unique, cool artist, blending the traditional and the modern. If they get out of the way, I can see a lot of potential from her, but unfortunately, it’s only allowed to blossom for half of this record.

Buy the Album

When it Works

When it Fails