The Singles Jukebox

Pop, to two decimal places

KINA GRANNIS - THE FIRE
[3.67]


How your singer-songwriters are launched today: I am so thankful to Doritos…"

Katherine St Asaph: If you’d told me seven years ago that in 2014 the dominant singer-songwriter instruments wouldn’t be solo piano or solo acoustic guitar but handclaps and percussion, I’d have wanted to skip to the future right away. Some future. Sarah McLachlan circa 1993 would have foregrounded the distortion.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: Wikipedia says this song “showcases lush acoustics and folk-driven vocal [sic].” Recommended for people who find Sara Bareilles too edgy. What utter twee bullshit.
[1]

Alfred Soto: He should have lit a fire under her.
[4]

Will Adams: The pregnant pauses between verse and chorus suggest something major is about to happen, but instead there’s just a slight uptick in momentum. “The Fire” is pretty, but the effort for a slow-burning build flattened the dynamics.
[5]

Anthony Easton: It would have been a lot safer if he put out a fire in front of her. That would be totally romantic. I would marry someone if they did.
[3]

Brad Shoup: Less a song than an extended round, “The Fire” is recorded well — those claps pop from the background — but at a slower tempo than a swoon demands. The guitar counterpoint in the refrain yearns to be an earworm, but this is a vocal showcase, alas.
[5]

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DOTAN - HOME
[4.89]


Feel his intensity.

Abby Waysdorf: I first heard this song on a radio station that plays both former and current Top 40; I’m frequently unfamiliar with past hits in this country, so I assumed this was an older song I’d missed. As I kept hearing it, though, I realized it was a new song that just sounded like The Alarm. Via, of course, all the contemporary permutations of Celtic-folkish-indie, and from a Dutch singer-songwriter rather than an Anglo/Irish conglomeration of haircuts. Nothing groundbreaking, but with a power and propulsion that makes it stand out from its reference points and contemporaries. A football chant gone moody, with a precise military thump and almost-acapella chorus, easy to remember and get swept up in. While I might have been surprised as to when and where it came from, that it’s a hit from somewhere is obvious at the first refrain.
[7]

Anthony Easton: He was born in Israel, is Dutch, and has worked in Nigeria for Amnesty International. The concept of home is such a fucked-up broken concept, especially with dealing with nationalisms, and though this is supposed to be inspirational, the concept, and Dotan’s history, makes it sound so anthemic that I cannot help but think of something sinister.
[4]

Kat Stevens: If Adventure Time is anything to go by, the standard of children’s television is pretty damn high these days. Therefore I have my doubts whether this gritty reboot of The Littlest Hobo will get past the preview screenings.
[4]

Alfred Soto: I’ve no tolerance for this intense, overdubbed, and no doubt bearded melancholy. The “home” metaphor sounds especially tired from the mouths of man babes.
[3]

David Sheffieck: If it wasn’t bad enough for a song to go Lumineers-by-way-of-Bastille, the song has to be called “Home”? I guess, at least, this is useful if in a decade someone wants to illustrate the two most overused trends of the past few years in one three-minute track. Wait, this stretches to four and a half?
[2]

Scott Mildenhall: Two singles called “Home” have come out in the UK this week, both with different, clear angles on homecoming. Leah McFall “clicks her heels” to escape a dystopian landscape deserted by Edward Sharpe, while Naughty Boy lazes in every sense towards a late summer weariness. The theme is there in each case, and it’s a key this lacks - Dotan could easily have called it “Going Down The Shops”. Wind, fire, rivers - not home, but a bunch of loose signifiers looking for better vocals, lyrics and instrumentation.
[4]

Megan Harrington: I’ve always been very fortunate to have a home and to feel that sense of belonging. Even when I felt implicitly unwelcome at school sleepovers or stressed out on vacation, I knew I was lucky to feel home so strongly that its absence, even temporarily, was upsetting. Dotan is playing our emotions like a snare hit in time with a heartbeat, but I can only imagine that if you don’t have a home, or you’ve been displaced, the search must sound a little like this song. It’s a mixture of clear-eyed pride, a pure and noble pursuit, and the swirling confusion of nighttime. A song as earnest as “Home,” that looks you in the eyes without flinching, can be an easy target for ridicule. I can’t help but look back, and I hear an anthem.
[8]

Brad Shoup: The album’s called 7 Layers, so I can only imagine what the other six ingredients of Dotan’s doom-folk burrito could be.
[5]

Katherine St Asaph: There’s a scene in Michael Gentry’s Little Blue Men (SPOILERS AHOY FOR ANYONE WHO IS THEORETICALLY GOING TO PLAY AN INTERACTIVE FICTION GAME BASED ON A JUKEBOX BLURB FOR A SONG ABOUT DUTCH TOLKIEN-SWELLPOP) where you escape your Dilbertian brainwash prison for something that turns out to be yet another brainwash prison: “In the valley below, young men and women in wispy robes frolic chastely about, dancing together amongst the wildflowers and the romping sheep. Everyone is laughing. Everyone has a pretty pink balloon that they hold by its string. It is innocence and carefree, everywhere you look. Also, you notice immediately, you are naked. Completely naked. This doesn’t bother you as much as part of you thinks it should.” It’s supposed to be a horror ending, but doesn’t it sound so pretty? Pretending it doesn’t is like pretending I don’t find “Home” core-to-the-bones stirring: the proper response, the total lie.
[7]

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FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE - DIRT
[3.33]


I think they’ve covered everything except playing with it and eating it.

Alfred Soto: This song zoomed 40-1 on the American country chart and all I can think of is this tune.
[4]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine: FGL ruled country in 2013 with party songs plus that one ballad—all single about girls and good times, so the time is ripe for the duo to prove that think about serious things, such as this great land of ours from which all good things come. This slow, studied sobriety isn’t the only distinctive thing about “Dirt.” The other, the one with short hair, sings a verse but he along with his fellow are both overshadowed by JD Souther spouting off such nonsense as “You don’t have to see the world to be worldly. Just raise some good children and bake good enough pies and the world will come right to your kitchen window.” This is straight-up bullshit coming from a singer/songwriter who fled to LA the first chance he got but it suits a song that rhapsodizes new constructions that can be bought with 10% down. Like a McMansion, it’s all facade: it might look good at a distance but even a cursory glance reveals the shoddy construction that will make it seem older than dirt within a years time.
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: I am six years old and I am going to ruin this song for you. Suppose the title, “dirt,” is a frat-bro studio Easter egg, and the whole song is a double entendre. Press play, ponder lines like “you get your hands in it, plant your roots in it.” Get yourself well and good into that juvenile mindset. Now imagine: The entire song is one big grandly paced buildup to “you know, you can’t fuck it.”
[1]

Anthony Easton: I wonder how much of this track will sell to people who grew up in parking lots and concrete and only drove in dirt from bible study to Wal Mart to school. I want to hear the stories of those, more than the (quite well written, a little musically anemic) ode to the same old nostalgia.
[6]

Patrick St. Michel: This is a song that requires you to watch the video, because without the additional storyline this is literally a song about dirt. Yet unlike similar songs focused on specific elements, this is as boring as…well, you know.
[2]

Megan Harrington: These lyrics sound so badly lost in translation. How did this go from being a “build your love on” dirt song to a “I’m in love with” dirt song? The sickly background vocals are so bizarre they’re almost hilarious, the word “dirt” cooed like it’s your baby’s nickname. Florida Georgia Line are on the verge of becoming the most misunderstood band since Creed.
[3]

Brad Shoup: You also name your Alice in Chains records after it. This has the determined paddle of the Mountain Goats’ “Against Pollution,” but only one man’s bray lands the cross. It’s a triumph of country songwriting, assuming that the writer(s) didn’t pencil in a guy whispering “dirt”.
[5]

Edward Okulicz: Yeah, we get it, dirt is life. You came from it (sex education really must be bleak where these dudes come from) and you’ll return to it, and ostensibly live on it in the middle of those two things. But evidently you can’t celebrate it; musically, this is as stodgy as it comes. Weirdly, they sing “dirt” with the fondness I normally reserve for a sandwich with three different kinds of meat on it. Dare I say this is what the narrator in “Fly Over States" is thinking when he’s being told how great it is to settle down?
[4]

Crystal Leww: This is what authenticity sounds like!!!!!1!
[2]

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JOHN LEGEND - YOU & I (NOBODY IN THE WORLD)
[4.12]


America, remember those halcyon days of late spring when a [5.00] still topped the Hot 100?

Thomas Inskeep: Akin to a certain Mr. Thicke, now that he’s had his freak number one pop crossover, John Legend is now free to return to his niche audience of Adult R&B fans. Not akin to Mr. Thicke, Legend’s pop smash was completely in keeping with his catalog. “You & I” is of a piece with “All of Me,” except that it’s got a bit more production and instrumentation — including some lovely, subtle muted horns. While I still wish he’d make more uptempo records along the lines of 2012’s “Best You Ever Had” (he’s quite capable of being sexy when he wants to be), this does its job tidily and I can’t dislike it.
[6]

Anthony Easton: I have always been seduced by John Legend, his earnestness and how he sells this kind of pap. There is the usual spending too much effort to convince his lover to be effortless, but that’s kind of expected at this point.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: It’s probably true that the only way John Legend could chart in 2014’s biz ecosystem is to go full acoustic glurge, aiming songs that’d otherwise parse as classic soul at coffeeshops and videos to Jezebel and Upworthy, so I can’t exactly fault him. As glurge, though, “You and I” fails totally. Telling a woman that she doesn’t know precisely, to the HotOrNot decimal point, where she stands on the world’s beauty scoreboard is like telling a marooned, drowning scuba diver she doesn’t know what water is. If Legend believed this crap he’d be married to someone other than a swimsuit model, or at least write songs where his paramour doesn’t send every hetero man who sees her into a horny fritz. It’s not a John Legend issue so much as a widespread songwriting issue — see “all the other boys try to chase me” — but it does make “You and I” ring false for a listener who’s not a walking electromagnetic pulse. That’s problem one. Problem two is that as non-glurge, “You and I” is superseded entirely by Miguel’s “Beautiful.” Imagine that: the song with the hashtag is the one that relies less on gimmick.
[2]

Megan Harrington: I’m not impressed with the “Girl, did you know you’re beautiful?” through-line of “You & I,” but, aside from John Legend’s parasitic need to externally define his paramour’s attractiveness, the song manages a rare feat. It’s slinky, sexy, even sometimes unpredictable while still adhering to the structure of a pop song. “All of Me” has dominated this year’s charts, but “You & I” is a better showcase of Legend’s talents.
[6]

Brad Shoup: About two seconds of the intro and 20 seconds of the outro: the dread thrill of imagining you’re the only two people in the world. Everything else: textbook yousplaining, complete with muffled toms and underwater organ and junior-high trumpet giving her the cartoon bug-eyes.
[4]

Patrick St. Michel: The beat in the chorus is a nice little development, as are the subtle little glitters. Everything else is just recycled ideas that are rarely interesting.
[3]

Alfred Soto: Who says global pop no longer exists? Indie echo and Coldplay sincerity infecting R&B — what will they think of next. This is the kind of inoffensiveness that should be resisted with barricades and bayonets.
[3]

Scott Mildenhall: Someone get Tiësto on the phone pronto.
[3]

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CRAIG DAVID - COLD
[5.64]


Craig David all over your [drug reference]…

Kat Stevens: There’s an icebox where his career used to be!
[7]

Scott Mildenhall: Craig David is pioneer as much as punchline, but it’s the latter that’s the reputation, and it precedes him. “Cold” travels along both lines. Past the ones that travel back from R&BDM through Taio Cruz to Slicker Than Your Average, where sans bitterness this could just about sit as one of the weaker tracks, but also back through the ones marked “SILLY.” Maybe it’s not entirely fair, but he’s hard to take seriously, and putting lines like “cold-hearted and deranged like a killer chick from a movie” through his familiar quick-slow flow doesn’t help.
[6]

Jonathan Bradley: Craig David tries to update himself for 2014, which is a bit of a shame; I could have done with hearing that UK garage two-step beat again. His voice is still silvery and he can wend it around a drum line like a wisp of smoke, but it’s not enough to turn what is so clearly a verse into a hook. At 0:18 when David starts on that “Cold-hearted and deranged…” bit again, the song deflates quicker than his syllables. First mention of this woman I’m interested; second time he brings up how nuts she is, I start wondering why he’s really so butthurt. A shame, as between all the stutters and Freon synth blasts, if this had been more carefully written it could have made for a compelling companion to Omarion’s sub-zero “Ice Box.”
[5]

Katherine St Asaph: It takes Craig David 30 seconds to stop hyperventilating and start explaining himself — I mean, she’s the broken record? Unless she’s literally torn your sides to literal ribbons, viscera dangling like one of those Halloween octopus costumes, then slow the fuck down, grab a beer, chill (ba dum tsh). David’s idea of “cold” is not so dramatic; it seems to be leaving after third base, or taking the initiative to kiss him (or being the FICKLE MUSIC BIZ, if you want to go down that road). My colleagues have called the proliferation of such songs sexist, but I never saw it that way. It’s the Willis Test again; “Cold” is a gender-flip of “Master Hunter,” and it doesn’t sound like it’s scolding but swaggering, a soundtrack to destruction — a literal soundtrack, to something like Under the Skin or Lucy, or an adaptation of The Robber Bride that starred Zenia. Those killer movie chicks would love this, put it to great use. Loud as she slo-mo punts a guy on the curb, bass swinging into place like sheaves of hair, or off a building. Soft — maybe a quarter the volume — as she lies on the cot in her room, dull-eyedly reliving her conquest, nails bent from habit: vaguely remorseful, vaguely antsy. It is a certain sort of empowering to cauterize yourself.
[7]

Crystal Leww: “Cold” came out a little over three weeks ago, so I went through Craig David’s Greatest Hits album. Now I’ve spent the last three weeks unable to listen to much else besides Craig David. I always forget how diverse and excellent his discography is, particularly the hits! Dude was probably a little ahead of the curve when it comes to EDM pop while receiving none of the credit for it, so there’s some sort of cruel irony that he’s here talking about MDMA after rap music and EDM finished it off. Still, “Cold” fits seamlessly in the Craig David hits. David’s a chameleon, and his voice even works in something as crowded and cloudy production-wise as this is. I love it all: the repeated and pitch shifted colds, the record scratches and wind downs, and most of all, Craig David harmonizing with himself. I’m glad he’s back.
[8]

Brad Shoup: Is Craig taking his cues from accidentally listening to two Usher songs at once?
[5]

Will Adams: Craig David’s warm but meaty timbre has been sorely missed — on “Cold,” it’s bolstered by the vocoded backing and the grinding bassline. The electronic flourishes keeps this from being a stock standard R&B number.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: I remember a time when Craig David felt like the future of pop, when he came in riding the wave of UK garage. Now he sounds like he’s chasing Jason DeRulo’s dollars. And did he really refer to a woman as “like a hit of MDMA”? This sounds instantly dated — the bad record-scratching effects don’t help — and limp as wet paper towels.
[2]

Patrick St. Michel: Imagine if your uncle learned about “popped a molly I’m sweatin’.” That’s Craig David singing “like a hit of MDMA” on this yawner.
[4]

Alfred Soto: Catchy and smooth — no getting around it. But the sentiments are so worn and the hysteria in David’s tone so unnecessary that the song amounts to a war crime fit to be adjudicated at The Hague.
[3]

Mark Sinker: So you’re sitting in a bar and the fellow next to you — who you totally don’t know — is talking a something-enhanced whirlwind at you, half-digested and contradictory analogies tumbling out and over one another as he tries to frame his problems for you, with his work, with his life, with this girl he may or may not have bedded/met/imagined… No idea in art richer than the unreliable narrator, of course, and music has warehouses full of ways to set this up, some more conscious than others. For example: any level of Michael Jacksonism in others now has you looking at them a little awry — and CD’s here is a superb high-speed virtuoso babble of himself as several MekaJackos sliding across into one another. You finish your drink and find reasons to edge away…
[8]

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LENNY KRAVITZ - THE CHAMBER
[6.33]


Hey kids! Cinna has a pop career!

Megan Harrington: Between the massive quantity of EDM bros willing to stand together in a field and sing along to Eliza Dolittle via Disclosure or the nu-disco bros banging Random House Memories at their barbecues, men are flocking in droves to music they’ve historically rejected. It might be surprising to see straight men embracing queer music from Giorgio Moroder or Sam Smith, but in all this reclamation of dance music, women are still observers or interpreters. What’s most exciting about “The Chamber” is Kravitz’s willingness to mix his musical DNA with Debbie Harry’s. This is a womanly song, not least of all because it borrows from “Heart of Glass” (it also borrows from “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”), but most of all because Kravitz positions himself on the receiving end of the well aimed bullet. He assumes a position of sensitivity, of mortality, and he cloaks this vulnerability not in crunchy alt-rock guitars but silky synthesizers. It’s fluent in throwback jam, but also interpreting influence and emotion in futuristic ways.
[8]

Thomas Inskeep: Well, I certainly didn’t expect Lenny Kravitz to be re-writing “Heart of Glass” 25 years into his career — and that was before I even realized he actually says “heart of glass” in the song’s chorus. From the chugga-chugga “Miss You”-on-cocaine rhythm to the atmospheric keybs behind the chorus, this is some serious fucking retro-DOR action. And amazingly, it’s probably his best single since the ’70s-soul-isms of “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.” For someone who came across as such a hippie manqué at the start of his career, it would appear that it’s the ’70s that have been the greatest musical gift for Kravitz. I guess you can teach an old dog new(ish) tricks.
[7]

Brad Shoup: Holy hell, is Lenny turning into early-’80s Elvis Costello? I hadn’t even considered a best-case scenario for him, let alone his achieving it.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Geez, it only took twenty-five years for Kravitz to play an interesting bass line on his own. Too bad the harmonies, rhythm strums, and electronics come from the Killers’ debut.
[6]

David Sheffieck: Sorely — and surprisingly — in need of a striking guitar solo in the bridge, but otherwise an impressively propulsive and wiry song. The last Kravitz song I liked was “Fly Away”; “The Chamber” makes me wonder if I should check for missing gems in the intervening years.
[8]

Scott Mildenhall: The actual content of the lyrics can stay or go — he’s made sense of "one in the chamber", at least — but the sound of them is enough. “ONEINTHECHAMBER” itself is so satisfying; vocally the chorus more than matches up to the enrapturing pulse and eye-of-the-storm atmosphere. It does sound like thousands of other songs — not all unintentionally if the “heart of glass” line is anything to go by, though he probably wasn’t thinking of Franz Ferdinand — but then those songs are good, too.
[7]

Mark Sinker: I correct the spelling in a magazine that covers the decorative and applied arts. Long-running joke: every new feature on glassware someone will propose the headline “Art of Glass,” punning on (wait for it) “Heart of Glass”. This has gone so far beyond mutually amusing cliché no one even much notices we’re doing it any more: it’s a kind of cheerfully phatic background hum of preoccupied co-worker signalling. Via this and many similarly emptied-out songphrases, apparently largely gathered by a spiderbot concordance aggregator, over a pleasant-enough New Wave-y guitar-shimmer-throb, Lenny is trying (and failing) to pass a Turing Test of lovelorn android sentience. Unexpectedly — when the words stops and there’s only mounting instrumental overload — you are indeed put in mind of a tormented cyborg lover overheating somewhere behind its communications screen, vital information unable to pass out or in.
[6]

Jonathan Bradley: Lenny Kravitz is an unusual presence in the pop landscape of 2014, but then again, he’s been that for pretty much his entire career. His glossy funk-rock is machined as precisely as any R&B-pop hit du jour, but his multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter background suggests a figure of the classic rock era; he has the toolkit of an auteur and the catalogue of a session player. Yet that catalogue has no shortage of hits, and like Chris Isaak or latter-day Carlos Santana, he’s had a lengthy career of the sort that, since it’s never been a part of the Zeitgeist, could plausibly last forever and be revived at any time; can a performer who’s never been relevant turn irrelevant? Like those men, or like Nickelback or Amy Winehouse or Norah Jones, he seems to thrive by exploiting market failure; plenty of people want to hear music that sounds like those artists, but that sound has calcified to the extent it can only be reproduced with ever diminishing returns by talented newcomers who will never be as exciting as their forebears. “The Chamber” is unlike “Fly Away” or “Again” or “Are You Gonna Go My Way” in that the pop-rock form it takes this time is circa-Blondie disco-rock, and, in true Kravitz fashion, it channels adequately that era’s funk basslines and brisk rhythms. If anything, it’s noteworthy for being more faithfully populist than contemporary indie rock’s ventures into the same realm. Cue it up after that Nathan East thing, and, one thing’s for sure: your playlist will definitely not be technically made up of oldies.
[5]

Anthony Easton: Lenny Kravitz is pretty much the perfect example of middle manager, isn’t he? Technically competent, ambitious enough, connects to the right people, knows his history, acts a little — sort of like Adam Levine now or Aerosmith a generation ago, but with some survivor cred, and some decent history of counter-programming. This could have been better with a bit of a Blondie sample in the “Heart of Glass” moment, and without the spoken word bit, but it’s a Kravitz song, and you get what you pay for.
[4]

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KIRA ISABELLA - QUARTERBACK
[8.25]


Canadian country triumphs over all (so far)!

Anthony Easton: One of the things that happens in the back of the truck, in the back woods, is that women get raped. Though this song talks about learning “the hard truth about love,” with the forced drinking and the narrative of powerful men taking advantage of young women, it suggests that Isabella knows about rape in the woods. One of the problems of bro-country, and the absence of female voices, is that these stories don’t get told. I do not know if the recent attempt at pushing harder or pretending to be one of the boys means that voices are heard. There are other, more complicated ways. The backlash against bro-country, then is one that is deeply rendered, and listening to Musgraves or Clark, one thinks about the rhetorical forms they are engaging in, which is melodrama. One of the purposes of melodrama in our culture is the construction of women’s narratives. Often, country music written by women is profoundly melodramatic. This song is a melodrama. The whole town talking digitally is the only update — and it could have been sung by Dolly or Loretta. Her voice does not quaver; it takes its strength, and its moralist tone, from tour mate Terri Clark.
[9]

Alfred Soto: A sports metaphor inverted to show the rot beneath the referents. At first the strings don’t work — they signal that This is Meaningful in a high school English class way — and Isabella is breathy when she should bite hard on those syllables. For male critics it’s of course too easy to praise the Miranda Lamberts and Martina McBrides for responding to trauma with the wit and power too often in 2014 ascribed to men; when the subject is the girl in “Quarterback,” she’s turned into an object, a pathetic thing to be pitied. That’s where the strings and rudimentary acoustic chords interfere: they reflect the girl’s experience in a marching band playing awkward and often awful music. Best, that’s how Isabella’s vocals triumph: compassionate, lived-in. Note the way she cuts to the truth in the verse about the drinks: “Before she knew it she’d had three mo-o-o-re.”
[7]

Josh Love: Describing the protagonist as a trumpet player in the marching band initially put me in mind of the Dixie Chicks’ “Traveling Soldier,” where putting the girl in the marching band telegraphed her lowly social status and reinforced the anonymity of her fallen epistolary sweetheart. That designation works sort of the same way here, only to a far more chilling end — here the point is to emphasize the tremendous social gulf between the girl and the quarterback, and the improbability of his affections. Which means either she must have offered herself up on a silver platter, or worse still, even if she didn’t, she should consider herself fortunate rather than a victim. Isabella doesn’t need much more detail than that; the horrifying specifics already played out in Steubenville and innumerable elsewheres (though evoking the “bonfire party ” allows for an even deeper fracturing of good-timin’ country’s idyllic facade). We talk a lot about finding antidotes to bro-country when often that merely means giving women agency over their own lives and their own fun. This song reminds a country listener that a far more sinister road gets a little easier to travel when certain cultural mindsets are allowed to fester.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: 1) “Quarterback” is a song about current events, but the brilliance of its songwriting is that it’s also a song about popularity, and who we deem to matter. The main character of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, the canonical required-reading book on this topic, has maybe one-third of a friend (she mostly uses her for free fundraiser-prep labor), teachers and administrators think she’s delinquent, and that she finds a resolution at all — lacrosse team ex machina — is acknowledged as mostly luck. I was lucky, growing up; nothing of the sort happened. I was too far off the social grid to even be bullied much. But in elementary school there was this one kid who, every day, would scratch up the backs of my hands until and after they bled. One day I came home and asked my parents if I could wear gloves to school. Horrified, they confronted the administration. The administration, who’d previously encouraged my mom to withdraw me, suggested I was cutting myself. This was first grade. The sorting starts early. 2) In college, someone once told me a school-paper colleague took advantage of a girl at a party. She didn’t say who; maybe she was protecting her, maybe she was a freshman or a newcomer, like Isabella’s protagonist, never matriculating to mention. He has a career now. People seem to like him. Judging by my college’s past M.O. for rape cases, it is likely there were no repercussions. I am hesitant to mention this not only because it’s hearsay, but because it seems banal. Everyone has a story like this, with the same participants in the same parties and the same social strata. 3) Kira Isabella’s been vague about what “Quarterback” was written in response to, but it seems likely to be Steubenville. What made Steubenville especially harrowing weren’t the facts of the case, though plenty harrowing, nor the peanut-gallery cyberbullying; what the whole town posted on Facebook, they’d have said at barbecues or playdates, with even fewer repercussions. No, it’s the way the usual litany of condemnation — she was drinking, those boys had promising futures — became socially charged: she went to the party alone, she didn’t have friends there, she wanted to social climb, and thus, and thus. It’s like a twisted version of that Echosmith song. Being a girl in high school is like walking a minefield; being an unpopular girl means walking that minefield alone. 5) “Quarterback” was first pitched to Carrie Underwood, who passed, as Tony Romo was also the quarterback — it’d send the wrong message It was since shunted off to Canada, and thank God; the production, unencumbered by post-Idol bombast, knows when to keep quiet and listen. Isabella’s light, unforeshadowed delivery of on the story makes it sting all the more when she bites the verse on “the whole town too,” and Marti Dodson’s songwriting, particularly how “how do you explain” fades into “who you gonna blame.” The video may make this go viral, attempt to make this an Issue Song (albeit a necessary one); even then the song would transcend that.
[9]

Thomas Inskeep: This is very good and very horrifying, taking on the issue of sexual assault by high school (and by extension, college) athletes. Well produced, well written, superbly sung by rising Canadian country star Isabella — but it’s disturbing enough that I don’t necessarily want to hear it again. That said, after living with it for a week, it’s stuck in my head, and I say that to its credit.
[7]

Brad Shoup: How incredible is it that Isabella is capable of depicting hunter and prey? So many lines are delivered at a register mixing disbelief and disgust, especially the title itself. The song proceeds like a closing statement, from scene-setting to laying out the facts to the plea for justice; the arrangement accrues forcefulness as well, switching from a legato string figure to something more anxious and lacerating. A Canadian country masterpiece, and a thematic milestone for the genre.
[10]

Edward Okulicz: It makes sense that the football player should take some of the load of being The Desirable Male Archetype from the cowboy in a genre that’s evolved to take into account the demographics of urbanisation. The small-town heartbreak treatment is a bit antiseptic, but the words here have real bite, and Isabella’s voice is by turns cautioning and condemning. We hear about the girl in the hushed verses, but the chorus simply summarises the protagonists by their status, and it’s very effective as commentary. The song puts a mirror up to the reporting around young men who commit acts of rape; the boys are promising athletes or students whose bright futures are being jeopardised by all this scrutiny from some girl who’s nobody. The final verse, where we are reminded that allegiances operate independently of truth and justice, subverts the teen-movie soundtrack surroundings brilliantly. If Isabella sounds a bit detached at times, consider the horror of what’s being narrated.
[8]

Will Adams: We were just six kids left alone on a hot summer evening, stumbling back from a day of drinking to sprawl on the living room floor and keep drinking. We passed around a fifth of vodka; I sipped a cheap beer slowly. We tried to keep a semblance of party alive, playing drinking games we didn’t know the rules of, turning up the stereo. We were tired but still restless. We were just kids. I lost track of everyone, fiddling instead with the playlist. And then some of the others snickered wildly; he had just taken her by the hand to a bedroom. Their quiet laughs turned to howls as they realized this was his first time, that he was totally smashed. Her friend shook her head and said that she’d promised herself she wouldn’t this weekend. And I was there too, stunned at what was happening in front of me. I couldn’t change it. At least, I didn’t think I could. I felt sick inside for a long time afterward. I felt confused — why did I feel so responsible? That’s when I realized that these stories, unfortunately common, have an unspoken third character: the bystander. Two summers ago, it was me. In “Quarterback,” it’s Kira, it’s you, the listener, it’s everyone. It prods that scar, and it hurts. But it reminds you of what happened, and that it’s a story you’ve been a part of. But it asks you to change it.
[8]

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MADDIE & TAE - GIRL IN A COUNTRY SONG
[7.00]


or: “Girl in a Better Song”

David Sheffieck: A gleeful pastiche of bro-country that embraces the style’s production while tweaking its politics. Maddie & Tae seem perfectly timed to provide a corrective to the genre, a T-Pain-covers-“Royals” for modern country, and they do an admirable job. The real test will be whether they’re given the opportunity to build a career off of it.
[8]

Josh Love: I especially like that these are actual young girls who aren’t already stars throwing down this gauntlet. It’d be one thing if this was Miranda or Carrie calling out Nashville from their perches, but it’s downright punk-rock to hear this riposte from a couple of teenagers you could very easily imagine getting propositioned to be pickup truck accessories. And the “yeah baby” in the background kind of annoyed me at first but now I grasp its charm. These girls want to party and be carefree too, they just need to set a couple of quick ground rules first.
[7]

Anthony Easton: A necessary push back to the ongoing problems of bro-country, but it is a novelty that I am not sure will sustain itself. The brilliant PR campaign, including both traditional radio and smart twitter responses, are better than a song that might be just a little bit on the nose.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Of course it’s not revolutionary. Maddie and Tae probably couldn’t have gotten this released without hitching it to the same ol’ reactionary same ol’ (Bring back the days of Conway, Conway didn’t talk about this! “I’d Love to Lay You Down” and “Tight Fittin’ Jeans” are about things other than sex and tight-fittin’ jeans.) They probably couldn’t get anything released if they weren’t “marketable,” i.e. the sort of 18-year-old thin blonde girls who’d look right at home in a country song. But the music, while still not revolutionary, is at least interesting. The guitar stuttering reminds me, weirdly, of Purity Ring (now there’s a loaded reference out of context), and the percussion emulates ’00s teenpop; the standard Southern-rock chorus arrives on time, but at least I’m not already bored.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Three listens later, I don’t know if this material requires a wink or a blow to the head. My instincts tell me that with voices this sub-Miranda the wink is all they’re capable of and not enough. To admit you’re a part of someone else’s fantasy affirms the validity of that fantasy.
[5]

Brad Shoup: You gotta fight farts with farts, I guess. They’ve nailed the “Boys ‘Round Here” sound, and the hick-hop flow. So they’ve gotten the guys’ attention; the text is strictly for the women to nod along. I can’t remember anyone recently telling their date to shut up, but neither is there a lot of talking, either. Either way, the charges in the chorus are equally damning and startling for being sung and not typed.
[6]

Thomas Inskeep: When I first read about this single, I had high hopes, which I’m delighted to say are all fulfilled; “Girl In A Country Song” delivers the goods. Not only is it quite clever lyrically (and it makes me very happy that Maddie & Tae themselves co-wrote this), but the fact that the song’s production is itself very much akin to most bro-country on the radio is a smart move. This can rub up against the very subject (and songs) it’s criticizing, and it does so with affection - there’s no malice to be found here. I hope this is a huge hit, and who knows, maybe even a rallying cry. I’m also eager to hear more from these two, because based on their debut single, they’ve (probably/hopefully) got a bunch more in ‘em. Every element of this “Song” works.
[9]

Megan Harrington: I was initially tempted to qualify how enjoyable “Girl in a Country Song” is, but instead I’m choosing to believe that even casual country listeners can immediately appreciate how important it is to reject the complacency that coats bro-country with a grimy film. It’s genuinely insidious to suggest there’s a girl out there who majored in drinking and flirting or to believe that the stewardess can’t wait to get you into the airplane bathroom. “Girl in a Country Song” is, of course, also a great way to divert some of the shine on Luke Bryan over Maddie & Tae’s way. It’s an excellent gambit from a publicity standpoint, it’s a sentiment overdue for shouting, and it’s a fun four minutes.
[8]

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MAGGIE ROSE - GIRL IN YOUR TRUCK SONG
[3.50]


There’s something called “bro-country,” see

Megan Harrington: You want to be inanimate? You want to be a collection of words some guy wrote, not even about you? You want to be two-dimensional, 36-24-26, underdressed and oversexed? You want to play for three minutes and then exist only as a memory? No thoughts, no feelings, no mind of your own? Maggie Rose, I don’t believe you.
[1]

Katherine St Asaph: People on the Internet are angry, or at least unimpressed, by this song. The commenter debate is about what you expect (“Sixteen and Pregnant!” “But it’s female empowerment!”); the bloggers are skeptical of two Nashville bro-country answer songs coming out on the same day. Sure, I can see that, monetizing every side to the bro-country story: Jason Aldean tweeted about “Truck Song,” but “Country Song” is on Florida Georgia Line’s label, and Unilever owns Axe and Dove and so forth. Then I get to “having guys that learned how to treat women from 90′s hip-hop songs dominating country music… [resulting] in actual behavioral changes in young women” and asplode goes my brain, right onto the wall. Guys do a horrid job of learning how to treat women by growing up as guys in the South, and girls have loved or capitulated to it just the same; if you really cared about Maggie as an artist you’d call her Margaret Durante, and acknowledge that she had a career before being the girl in your inbox. “Girl in Your Truck Song” isn’t even interesting as an answer song, anyway; it’s far more compelling if you assume the bros ignore her, making the lyric a resigned “fuck it”: “you like tailgates and beer? I can like tailgates and beer — now will someone like me?” Even then, only the lyrics would hold mild interest. The music would be nothing.
[3]

Alfred Soto: Stepping out of a Luke Bryan song like Emma Flaubert in “The Kugelmass Episode” is a shrewd conceit that perfunctory writing and singing don’t illuminate. That’s all she is: a girl in your truck song, strumming behind a mandolin.
[3]

Iain Mew: I can understand the urge to keep fanfic close to canon, but if you’re taking on an underdeveloped character it’s a waste to add as little development as Maggie Rose does here. The saving grace is that this is a song and not only fanfic, and the way the guitar shivers and she sings the title has a reverence that places bro-country as her "Springsteen.” The relationship with the music is the deepest and most appealing one in the song.
[5]

Josh Love: What damns this song the most is its self-awareness. Shorten the title to “Girl in Your Truck” and it could’ve simply been a flirty little lark. Unfortunately, Rose is doing more than that. She’s explicitly identifying with a specific trope that exists in songs in the real world and reinforcing its validity. I won’t indict this song for happening to appear in conjunction with Maddie and Tae’s because I don’t know if that was intentional, but I will indict it for propping up a boring, dumb, played-out, regressive fad.
[3]

Thomas Inskeep: How in the world is it somehow seen as “progressive” for a woman to sing that she wants to be the objectified subject of hundreds of bro-country songs? Stringing together a bunch of titles of “girl/truck” songs: not impressive. Mandolin added for extra “country” cred: not impressive. Rose’s voice: not impressive. Lyrics: actually kind of offensive.
[2]

Brad Shoup: The best thing about this is when or if it’s talked about in casual conversation, it’ll be referred to as “the girl in your truck song”. Look, reply records, from “The Wallflower” to “Soul Girl” to “Fuck You Right Back,” are always with us, and that’s awesome: the zeitgeist wagging a finger at itself. Sometimes these tunes are (merely) straight cash-ins, sometimes they’re songs about wanting to fuck a Beatle and the lust steams off the platter. This is a cash-in, sung by a mortified-sounding Rose. The three-scratch guitar figure at the end of the chorus underlines her D4W cred, or maybe the producer’s realization that an actual truck song must have melancholy or bite, and he supplied neither.
[3]

Anthony Easton: Il n’y a pas de hors-texte - Derrida // You’re a little bit of J-Lo/A little bit of Kim Kardashian/It’s big, it ain’t tiny, I’m diggin’ that hiney/It’s a classy one/Might be a bullshitter/But I ain’t no ass kisser’/Least I’ve never been one before/But if there’s anybody’s ass I’d kiss, I’d want it to be yours, whoa, whoa, whoa - Justin Moore, “I’d Want It To Be Yours.” No one fragment carries the totality of the message, but each text (which is in itself a whole) has a particular urgency, an individual force, a necessity, and yet each text also has a force which comes to it from all the other texts. - Hélène Cixous, Writing Blind // And there’s somethin bout a girl in a red sun dress/With an ice cold beer pressed against her lips/In that farmers field, will make a boy a mess/There’s somethin bout a girl in a red sundress - Kip Moore, “Something About a Dress” // Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents. // If you wanna call me, call me, call me./You don’t have to worry ‘bout it baby./You can wake me up in the dead of the night;/Wreck my plans, baby that’s alright./This is a drop everything kind of thing/.Swing on by I’ll pour you a drink.The door’s unlocked./ I’ll leave on the lights/Baby you can crash my party anytime - Luke Bryan, Crash My Party.” // We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. -Monique Wittig, “One is Not Born a Woman.” // You’re shakin’ that money maker,/ like a heart breaker,/ like your college major was/Twistin’ and tearin’ up Friday nights/Love the way you’re wearin’ those jeans so tight/I bet your kiss is a soul saver, my favorite flavor, want it now and later - Thomas Rhett, Get Me Some of That.
[8]

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DEAR JACK - LA PIOGGIA è UNO STATO D’ANIMO
[5.67]


Hope you like swing rhythms…

Iain Mew: When I saw a free outdoor pop event in Rome recently where Dear Jack were crowd favourites, their heartthrob qualities were to the fore, but it was also obvious that they had a song with instant appeal. They borrow heavily from the Doctor Who + Blondie groove of Muse’s "Uprising," but turning that song’s best bit into a chorus is a smart move, and they do a better job of evenly spreading the dramatic intensity too.
[7]

Brad Shoup: The grand gestures get to me. Alessio Bernabei’s got a kind of untechnical swoop: he has the pipes, but can’t slide between notes. The strings promise one kind of grandiosity, but it’s a feint. The martial shuffle takes over. Bernabei gets to howl (against what sounds like a theremin), but Dear Jack’s banking on the groove.
[5]

Juana Giaimo: Not even the last “hey hey“‘s could save this song.
[3]

Scott Mildenhall: Muse. It sounds like Muse. If helmed by a man with even more theatrical tendencies than Matt Bellamy. Theatrical Muse is the best kind of Muse, as the reflection of “Strict Machine” in the mirror this holds toward “Uprising” attests, but only when done well. Whirly tube noise to vocal, this is, exactly the level of performance a song called “Rain Is a State Of Mind” from an album called “Tomorrow Is Another Movie (Part One)” deserves.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Tolerance of Panic! at the Disco is a state of mind. Extra point because I don’t speak enough Italian to know whether the lyrics are bilge.
[6]

Kat Stevens: I am intrigued how the particular subset of Italian music videos I’ve encountered (admittedly mostly Eurovision entries) take place in high-ceilinged but sparsely-furnished rooms. I don’t know what the Italian equivalent of late Victorian/early Edwardian decorating is - Vittorian? Emmanuelleian? Let’s say Neo-Classical even though I swear I walked down a bunch of streets in Rome called Via Vittorio Emanuele and zero streets called Via Neo-Classicale, but whatever it’s called, here it’s completely inappropriate for this spooky, light-hearted indie schaffel-bounce, which should be located in Count Duckula’s castle, i.e. GOTHIC REVIVAL.
[6]

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