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Song Reviews

Jewel – “Ten”

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There isn’t much to love about Jewel’s latest country album. Produced by Nathan Chapman [Taylor Swift], the generally innocuous eleven-song collection (titled Sweet and Wild) is riddled with the kind of heavy-handed lyrical clichés and soft-rock sound that’s come to characterize Jewel’s music since well before her country crossover.

As a songwriter, Jewel’s been struggling to find a voice that fits her ever since her ubiquitous folk-rock debut Pieces of You was released in 1996. That album was a raw affair, unbridled by any sense of craft or convention. She wasn’t writing songs so much as writing poetry, but she pounded out her passions with a few chords and a stirring warble of a voice. To this day, that record remains one of music’s best albums—a musical portrait of an angst-ridden young woman which could have come from no other voice and at no other time in history.

How do you follow up something like that? 1998’s Spirit was a more mature, comfortable effort that found Jewel trying to learn how to be a multi-platinum songwriter. Whereas before, she delivered the musical equivalent to free verse poetry, Spirit came with expectations—both artistic and commercial. The album wasn’t a disaster in either regard, but it wasn’t really the same artist. There may, in fact, be few greater examples of album-to-album contrast than the turmoil of Pieces of You and the relative tranquility of Spirit.

From there, she bounced between pop, light rock and even dance—the genre where she has found her most chart success (thanks to three successive dance #1s). And then there was country.

All along that path, she’s grown to have greater command of songwriting techniques, and she’s expanded her collaborative circle to include some of the most notable creative forces from all genres of music. Yet, she’s never really tapped in to the same well of insight that she drew from when she was younger.

Not until now, not until this one track from this otherwise unremarkable collection. “Ten” (co-written with Dave Berg) is glossy and fully aligned with country music’s mainstream. But it’s also one of the best songs she’s ever written—certainly the best song she’s written in a decade. “Ten” is not just a tight song, it’s a perfect song.

The track boasts a plucky banjo and the faint wail of a steel guitar, but Chapman smartly keeps most of the musical augmentation in a supporting role to Jewel’s incredible voice.

The real story here, however, is just how essential these lyrics are. “Ten” tells the story of a woman who, in the midst of fights with her lover, stops and counts to ten. As she counts through the chorus, we get to hear what goes on in her mind. “One, I still wanna hate you/Two, three I still wanna leave,” she sings.

This isn’t your cookie-cutter “we’ve all got problems” bickering, as typically portrayed on country radio. This is real. This is a drag it out, scream and shout kind of fight. This is the kind of fight that’s so frustrating, so infuriating, so demoralizing, that it just seems like the best thing you can do is pack up your bag and go.

Because anything has to be better than this.

A fight like that spirals out of control, and like a snowball rolling down a mountain, it builds upon itself. The words get meaner and the pain grows deeper.

Jewel reminds us that, in that moment, we have to hold on. And, that if we can just get to ten we might not even remember what we were fighting about in the first place.

“Ten” is smart, sensitive and powerful. Here’s hoping that Jewel—after all of these years—has finally voice that voice she’s been searching for.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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Song Reviews

John Rich – “Another You”

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For a guy who is supposed to be a genius songwriter, John Rich sure does seem to be running out of ideas. World/Girl, Do/You, Out/Down–these are the best rhymes a three-time ASCAP Songwriter of the Year can come up with? Maybe he spent all his good lines on “Raising McCain.”

Rich’s songwriting has never been accused of being especially sophisticated (actually, neither has Rich), but he has nonetheless demonstrated a high aptitude for clever turns of phrase and unique, original word choice. The first single from his upcoming solo project showcases none of that. “Another You” is a song that sounds like it was written when Rich was really, really bored. Because it’s really, really boring.

And really, really bad.

A million lyrical miles away from the interesting, edgy material that made up Horse of a Different Color (the album that resurrected Rich’s flagging career and launched him into Super Galactic stardom as one half of Big & Rich–we miss you Big Kenny), “Another You” is neither interesting nor edgy.

Rather, it is completely effortless–and I obviously don’t mean that as a compliment, but that Rich literally seems to have put zero effort into its composition, almost as if he pulled lines out of a paper bag, or spent a few minutes aimlessly rearranging those little magnets that stick on your refrigerator door. You know, the ones with words on them that can be made to say things like “Pick up milk” or “Take the trash out” or “Reviewing this song makes me want to punch myself in the face.”

Aside from the fact that this song gets its lyrical ass kicked by David Kersh’s 1997 hit “Another You” (written by Brad Paisley), Rich’s take on post-breakup regret plays as incomprehensibly unbelievable. Decidedly timid and conservative in both concept and execution, it’s just hard to take Rich, country’s drama king, seriously when he goes into sensitive crooner mode.

Part of that is because Rich is a poor singer, comparatively speaking–one with a tragically limited range (a fact underscored without Big Kenny’s vocal support to add color to an otherwise drab voice).

More than this, however, is that the whole package just seems entirely fake and designed purely for commercial effect. Cue the strings. Here comes the crescendoing chorus, followed by the emotional vocal run on the final line. The song has no heart and the recording has no teeth. John Rich doesn’t care about this song. He didn’t care about it enough to invest himself in its composition, and that comes through in his singing.

So why should we care about it, either?

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Song Reviews

The Band Perry – “Hip To My Heart”

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New Republic Nashville sibling trio The Band Perry sprightly treks through country’s bubbly side on “Hip To My Heart,” a rollicking up-tempo that pulses with energy. Lead singer Kimberly Perry’s voice is a pleasant surprise, invigorating, full of youthful vitality and accented by just a hint of raspy grit.

Likewise, “Hip To My Heart” is happy, playful and charming. Unfortunately, it also makes very little sense. Written by the trio and Brett Beavers, the song opens with the lines “I like your lips like I like my Coca-Cola yeah/Oh how it pops and fizzes/You like my shirt like I like it when you hold my hand/The way it fits, it’s got me feeling, feeling lucky.

Things don’t improve much from there, as we’re run through a maze of distracting and unnecessary wordplay.

Any fashion pundit will tell you that trying too hard to appear hip is the surest way to come off looking like a poser. With “Hip To My Heart,” The Band Perry demonstrates a cool sense of musical style, crafting a song full of fresh hooks and interesting turns. But lyrically, this runs way too far outside the lines, so adorned with quirks that it comes off as gaudy and unmatched.

“Hip To My Heart” may also be mainstream country’s first big-time single to draw directly from the influence of label-mate Taylor Swift: By and for an very young audience, The Band Perry is more at home in a suburban mall than a seedy honky tonk. Without Swift’s same narrative deftness, however, “Hip To My Heart” amounts to pure fizz.

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Song Reviews

Katy Perry ft. Kanye West – “E.T.” (“Futuristic Lover”)

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No pop artist approaches matters of sexuality with more playful spunk than Katy Perry, but there’s no taste of cherry Chapstick present on her latest single.

There’s no “shocking” girl-on-girl action, no cotton candy-laced teenage dreams and no flashing of peacocks in the California sunshine. “E.T.” is raw sexual energy set to a dark, thumping, rave-inspired beat. And although Perry’s voice has never sounded bigger or richer, that energy alone is not enough to save what is otherwise a thoroughly second-rate song that’s plagued by an ill-conceived concept.

In “E.T.,” Perry sings that she’s ready for abduction, as well as the relatively innocuous lines, “Infect me with your lovin’/Fill me with your poison.” But as the song pounds along to a beat ripped from Russian duo t.A.T.u.’s 2002 hit “All The Things She Said,” the constant string of outer space metaphors quickly grows tiresome.

The song never rises to more than that multitude of metaphors, seemingly searching for as many different ways as possible to say the same thing (though never actually saying anything). The cut’s just over three minutes long, but by the time the easily-predicted ambient breakdown rolls around at the 2:07 mark, you’re likely to feel as though you’ve been thoroughly bludgeoned by the song’s weird commitment to its equally weird theme.

Perry’s trio of super producers (Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Ammo) have rendered this entirely danceable, but some of the lyrics (which they co-wrote with Perry) are unintentionally hilarious. In addition to calling the object of her affection “an alien,” Perry refers to him as “supersonic” (he’s very fast?) and says she wants to be “filled by his poison” (I don’t even want to know).

The line “Fill me with your poison” isn’t delivered with the same knowing smirk as “I wanna see your peacock.” Perry sings it with a straight face, apparently oblivious not to the sexual meaning of it but to the pure awkwardness of its construction.

All of this results in a slice of audio genre fiction that never transcends its plot, and which seems almost too ridiculous to actually come from the hands of four people as talented as these.

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