Ka-Ching…With Twang – Pop-Country from Breland and Kelsea Ballerini

Breland – Cross Country

Daniel Breland from New Jersey, the son of two ministers who turned down a place at music school to study business, released his debut album on Atlantic Records at the start of September 2022. The label surely signed him on account of his way with melody and harmony. Keith Urban wrote a couple of tracks with him including Out The Cage, and the UK took to him when he came over for Country2Country 2022. It matters a great deal that he is non-white, but this album should be judged on its own merit.

Boldly, it does not include either the earworm My Truck, which was one of six tracks on an impressive debut EP released in 2020, or his number one Beers On Me, a collaboration with Hardy and Dierks Bentley.

It does have appearances from Ingrid Andress, Lady A, Thomas Rhett, Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton (who is on the title track), who should all push their fanbases on to Breland’s work. One can also include Shania Twain as a collaborator, given the way Breland’s song Natural rewrites (and credits) Man I Feel Like A Woman to essentially become ‘Man! Look at that woman!’ There is more than one key change.

The Ingrid collaboration Here For It opens the album. It reminds me, with its clapping and major-key melody, of the theme from TV cartoon Arthur, especially with the pair singing of telling each other about their problems because ‘misery loves company’. Praise The Lord, a nice ditty written with TR, is one of the most optimistic songs released this year, and the Lady A duet Told You I Could Drink (‘cos you pushed me to the brink’) proves that Breland can appeal to a country radio crowd too.

Keith Urban appeared on Radio 2 around the time My Truck was zooming up the charts and bigged up the young writer. Throw It Back has fiftysomething Keith cutting loose alongside Breland on a pop-trap tune that will sound great in one of those Lower Broadway clubs to get hen parties to buy drinks. ‘If you sexy and you know it make it clap!’ only has one kind of audience.

Six writers including LA pop chap Sean Douglas were there for the hooky-as-hell Thick, a song with a heavy beat targeted at folk with ample posteriors (‘Shout out to Lizzo!!’). The bouncy party song County Line, full of alcohol and Lynryd Skynyrd, has eight credits including Ernest and Sam Hunt as well as Breland’s sibilant pair of producers (get ready): Sam Sumser and Sean Small! The mix of processed beats, hiphop cadences and Sam Hunt-type melodies is attractive and very contemporary.

Ryan Hurd drops by to co-write Happy Song, a reminiscin’ song full of regret, while For What It’s Worth is a rewrite of Someone Like You. Growing Pains is a song of self-examination where our narrator learns to overcome life’s troubles; it also uses one of my favourite lyrical motifs, the ‘mama told me’ motif. Good For You, meanwhile, is a showstopper full of autobiography.

Don’t Look At Me – which is completely genre agnostic as per the reference to Prince and The Rolling Stones in the same couplet – has a fine melody and the album’s best chorus, which I hope doesn’t get lost in its place as Track 13 of 14. Final track Alone At The Ranch summarises the album’s mission statement, with Breland’s voice swooping to the top of his range and a syncopated melody drawing the listener in. It helps that it’s a slow jam full of wordplay.

The future is bright for Daniel Breland.

Kelsea Ballerini – Subject To Change

How quickly things can turn. Our Kelsea was ‘unapologetically in love’ two albums ago, but the rollout of album four is dominated by the surprise news of the breakdown of her marriage to Morgan Evans, who came to London this summer and sung all those songs he had written about her. He’s going to have to get some new songs, as Kelsea has.

She is in a tough position: she’s not an activist singer or mummy like Maren Morris, nor a twangin’ newcomer like Lainey Wilson or a traditionalist like Carly Pearce. She is in danger of being yesterday’s news, which makes Subject To Change an interesting listen. She launches it at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where she played to fans already familiar with her story via social media and such.

As if to perfectly hit the middle of the Pop/Country Venn Diagram, which was a theme of her self-titled third album, Subject To Change is co-produced by Shane McAnally (Mr Nashville) and Julian Bunetta, Mr Los Angeles who shaped the sound of first One Direction then of Thomas Rhett.

‘I was like oh my God!’ introduces I Guess Thay Call It Fallin’, a breakup song set to the same sort of poppy production that marked her debut album. Jimmy Robbins was in the room for Walk in the Park, which mentions both LA and Colorado in the first verse and has a fluttering chorus that reminds me of Shane’s work with Kacey Musgraves, who is also not a ‘walk in the park’.

I Can’t Help Myself moves from A to B to D, perhaps to indicate Kelsea’s flibbertigibbety nature, while If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too) is 100% Dixie Chicks thanks to its mandolin and fiddle arrangement. Love Is A Cowboy reminds us that Kelsea is from Tennessee, with ‘El Dorado and John Wayne’ present in the verse, while she throws her voice so it has that Hank Williams catch just before the final chorus.

It’s the clearest indication of what Kelsea is trying to do, thanks to working with both McAnally and Bunetta. Muscle Memory does much the same, with a singalong chorus full of ‘uh-huhs’ and a catch-up with an old friend in the verse, which reminds me of Thinkin’ About You, one of the biggest hits on country radio in the last year.

The single sent to radio to prepare fans for the album was the fluffy filler Heartfirst. That track and the title track were co-written by a woman fast becoming a sort of mother figure of Nashville, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. It opens with a Britney-like ‘yeah yeah’ vocal hook and a processed beat; the chorus is pure pop, while Kelsea thanks God and takes it ‘day by day’.

I wonder if You’re Drunk, Go Home, which features Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson, will get a push, especially given how Kelly has just taken over Ellen’s slot on mid-afternoon TV. Think of the synergy!! It’s a fine addition to Now That’s What I Call Bachelorette Party and is perfect to follow a Shania tune on Lower Broadway. There’s a nice reference to George Dickel whiskey which they perhaps paid for, much as a Silverado appears in another tune.

Eight of the 15 tracks were written with Alysa Vanderheym, a graduate of Nashville’s Belmont University whose big copyright is Talk You Out Of It, a slow jam by Florida Georgia Line. Weather reminds me of Lindsay Ell’s rapid-fire, hooky pop; Ashley Gorley helps the pair on The Little Things, which sounds like a pop/rock smash from 1997 and might be a future single, while pop writer Sasha Sloan joined them for Universe, a thinker of a song which will get fans illuminating the arenas with their phones.

Doin’ My Best sounds like an Instagram post in song (the second verse even mentions an iPhone!), with some clapping percussion and steel guitar underscoring mentions of therapy and how ‘showing up is good enough for me’. I expect every review will mention Halsey, whom Kelsea does not mention by name (‘I put ‘em on track four’). I really thought it a strange move for The Other Girl to be such a big single to push her third album, which was rather buried by the pandemic.

Marilyn is a 100%-er with music and lyrics by Kelsea, always a sign that this is An Important Song. Kelsea has realised Ms Monroe was a victim of the male gaze and a patriarchal society. It’s actually quite banal but I hope she gets to talk about celebrity while promoting album four.

The album concludes with What I Have, as country as the day is long. I wish she had plumped for one or the other, because she just seems as indecisive as ever, but such is the goal for Black River Entertainment to appeal to as wide an audience as possible who will pick and choose according to their tastes.

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