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Song Reviews

Trent Tomlinson – “Henry Cartwright’s Produce Stand”

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Common wisdom says that Nashville’s best material has a hard time finding its way to radio, either because the most colorful (and often quirky) tunes penned by the city’s immensely talented core of writers end up relegated to “album track” status, or because those more left-of-center songs never get cut in the first place. In recent memory there have been rare examples of non-standard themes rising to hit status–“Mrs. Steven Rudy” and “International Harvester” come to mind. For the most part, however, there is a startling disconnect between the quality of what gets shipped to radio and what the writers of those songs are actually capable of producing.

For better or worse, a big part of this is due to the fact that it’s difficult to strike a balance between artistic creativity and commercial message; country music is a business that targets millions of listeners, and more generalized themes typically translate more effectively over such a wide demographic. Songs that are too quirky can be alienating, while songs that are too smart can go over the heads of certain portions of the audience.

That’s why, when you visit Nashville, you’ll hear songwriters who you thought capable only of the lightest possible fare instead performing truly fantastic songs that will probably never be recorded by a major artist.

Trent Tomlinson’s latest single (the first quality release from new label Carolwood), certainly isn’t too smart for country radio, but it is a considerable departure from the very narrow scope of material currently defining the format. Full of colorful, highly descriptive language, it reminds me of the kind of song you’d hear at a Nashville writer’s night, but would be surprised to hear blasting from your car stereo.

Henry Cartwright, owner of a small-town produce (and prayer) stand, is neither a hero nor a villain—although he could fill the role of both, depending on your perspective. Is Cartwright a symbol of the values that define the moral core of “the South,” or is he a fabricated relic of an idealized past that was never actually representative of the people or places around him?

The song never answers this question. “Henry Cartwright’s Produce Stand” does not exist to pass judgment on Henry Cartwright–which is why this piece of slick, mainstream Americana remains charming, even in spite of its obvious commercially-fueled construction. It strives for no great drama, nor does it attempt to drive home any particular lesson or moral teaching. Instead, it settles for being an aptly drawn portrait of an often overlooked individual; Cartwright, probably seen as little more than a speck on the side of the road by the average passerby, is shown as flesh and blood, and valuable member of society who wields considerable influence.

To be sure, this song provides a candy-coated and one-sided portrayal of the character. We don’t get to see his flaws or his fears. But the song ultimately allows us to come to our own conclusion about “what it takes to make a man a man,” and as to whether or not Henry Cartwright is a capable commentator on the subject.

This is a song about character–the literary kind–and that’s something country radio could use a lot more of these days. Henry Cartwright, however we may choose to view him, is a carefully, thoughtfully, and loving crafted individual. His introduction is well worth four minutes of our time.

Now if only I could head on down to the produce stand to taste some of those “sinful” watermelons.

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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