A Country Buffet
You guys, about a year ago I made a bit of a fool of myself. I cast aspersions on... ahem... Carrie Underwood, implying that she was only mildly awesome, when in fact she is almost totally awesome.
Now, I'm not going to tell you that I like every song on her album "Some Hearts." Banal country-pop doesn't grow a soul just because the person singing it can blow the roof off a barn, so no amount of belting will make me enjoy "Don't Forget to Remember Me" (check these lyrics, people).
There's a reason "Before He Cheats" was a top ten hit on the pop charts. And there's a reason I got chills watching La Underwood perform "Wasted" on "American Idol" this season. Those songs rule.
Judging by the sound of "So Small," her latest single, Carrie Underwood has stayed with the producers and songwriters who know how to inject a song with 10 ccs of genius.
And if you listen to country radio, you know that "So Small" is in good company. Right now, there are tons of exceptional ditties out there. Sure, many of them sound like easy listening hits from the 80s, but so what? Country's been turning into pop since at least "Achy Breaky Heart," and we've had plenty of time to get used to it. It's best to embrace the good songs we're given without quibbling over their genre.
In that spirit, let's discuss the following examples of what country has been doing for us lately.
(1) "So Small" by Carrie Underwood
Huh? This is the first single from Underwood's upcoming second album, co-written by the artist with songwriters Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey. It's a power ballad about realizing that true love makes all your problems seem insignificant.
Why does this rule? Did you follow the link up there? The supple quality in Underwood's voice is, like, impossible to miss. Starting at about 1:32, she sings with these small touches of vibrato that show incredible technical skill, and then she leaps up to the top of her range like she's leaping up to answer the phone. She's in complete control of her instrument, and it's thrilling to hear.
But her vocal gymnastics don't overpower the song. Instead, they complement the muscular instrumental track, which features surging drums and an electric guitar solo.
For bonus thrills, there's also a "bring the beat back" moment at 2:40, right after C.U. hits her big power note. God! It just gets me every time! It's like hitting the top of the roller coaster and then, when the instruments drop out, racing down the hill.
Now... the lyrics may be a tad phony, since they do that country music thing where they ambiguously talk about God. Is it Christian love that makes troubles seem so small? Or is it romantic love? If you make it unclear, you can pander to... um... please everyone.
But, dammit... Carrie just sounds so committed. Whatever we want the song to mean, we can imagine she passionately agrees with us.
(2) "I Told You So" by Keith Urban
Huh? You know! Keith Urban! Aussie country hunk! He's married to Nicole Kidman, and he checked into Betty Ford! And when my friend Laura worked at the Frick Museuem here in New York, she once sold tickets to ol' Keith and Nick. Or as she put it, "I sold tickets to Nicole Kidman and some guy with great highlights."
True enough. His hair is worthy of a Bravo reality series called "Urban Style," in which 12 Australian rubes try to sexify themselves to be just like Keith. The winner marries Nicole Kidman's nanny.
Anyway, "I Told You So" is the third single from Urban's album "Love, Pain, & The Whole Crazy Thing." It recently hit number 2 on the Billboard country chart, and it's a straight-up rocker about a man whose lover comes back to him.
Why does this rule? First and foremost, because of the music. How often can you say a hit single has a surprising sound? Well, here comes Keith Urban, rocking out with Uillean pipes. It's haunting, really, to hear the pipes gently contrast the frantic pace of the drums and the banjo. They bring a type of peace to the otherwise rollicking tune.
As it rides on top of all this, Urban's voice is buoyant, especially in the chorus. He starts by singing short, sharp syllables ("Well! Oh! Can't. You. See."), and then he launches into falsetto. Then he repeats the pattern and ends with a long, growled note on the phrase "I told you sooooo."
It's so dynamic that it can sweep you away, forcing you to bounce in your chair as you write a blog post about it. The energy perfectly reflects the narrator's joy over his lover's return.
(3) "I Need You" by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
Huh? This ballad is the 10 billionth collaboration between McGraw and Hill, the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of country music love. It's currently number eight on the Billboard country chart, and it's about two people savoring their addiction to one another.
Why does it rule? Do you know the song "Leather and Lace" by Stevie Nicks and Don Henley? It's great for the same reasons as "I Need You." Both songs are about the love between sinners--people who drink, smoke, and nurse old wounds--and they both have an unpolished sound that supports their lyrics. They seem like they were recorded in one take, with all the musicians together in a room, playing their instruments as they drank beer and petted old dogs.
That authenticity is particularly impressive on "I Need You," since it isn't something Faith Hill normally has. Most of the time, she sounds like she's racing toward the latest trend--as in, "The people want pop? Here's 'This Kiss!' Oh, wait! They want an homage to old-school country? Here's 'Mississippi Girl!'"
But singing alongside McGraw, explaining that she needs him like a needle needs a vein, Hill sounds emotional and alluring. Her clear tone blends well with the gravel in his throat, letting us imagine these singers slow dancing in some dank Oklahoman bar.
I bet that when Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow heard "I Need You" for the first time, they realized it was the song "Picture" was supposed to be.