Country music is a genre ripe, rich and fecund with female voices, hell, a large part of its creation and genesis can be attributed to Sara and Maybelle Carter back in the 1920s. Right down through the decades, female performers have stamped their presence across Country music in bold, bright and expressive ways. Patsy, June, Loretta, Tammy, Dolly, Reba, Trisha, Faith and Shania. And then we stop. Sure, there’s been Carrie and Miranda in the past twenty years but very little else. The advent of a new millennium seemed to bring a halt to radio’s appetite for women performers, ‘but we only reflect what the people want to hear,’ is the oft-used and rather pathetic reply, as if radio itself was an instrument driven by its listeners and not mega-buck corporate sponsors. The original radio stations of the 20’s and 30’s which birthed Country institutions like The Grand Ole Opry were little more than broadcasting arms of insurance companies and such like. And so, we arrive in 2020 with signs of a re-birth and reboot finally beginning to look like they might turn into something more sustainable and longer lasting, which is perfect timing for Carly Pearce, as she releases this, her self-titled, second album onto a public whose appetite appears to be changing because ‘Carly Pearce’ is, simply put, one of the most outstanding, well-crafted and lovingly produced pieces of commercial Country music since those glory days of the 90’s
Pearce’s debut album, ‘Every Little Thing’, released back in 2017 was a mature and solid entrance onto the big Nashville stage. Tracks like ‘Hide the Wine’ hinted at a playful, authentic performer whilst ‘If My Name Was Whiskey’ and ‘I Need a Ride Home’ dug into deeper places, seemingly speaking of an artist mature beyond her years. Pearce has taken all those facets of her personality and produced an album that reflects not only all the different sides of herself, but of women all over. This album is such a multi-faceted look at what it is like to be a woman in 2020, it should be held up as an example of damn fine Country music but it should also be championed as being ‘of’ and ‘about’ the experience of being a woman.
There’s the flirty, cheeky side of Carly Pearce which is represented by tracks like ‘Call Me’ and ‘You Kissed Me First’. The former, written by the much-missed busbee, the very talented Emily Shackleton and Jimi and Phillip from Little Big Town sounds like a song from the aforementioned band circa their ‘Tornado’ or ‘Painkiller’ eras. It’s fun, flirty and full of insistent and niggly melodies that lodge into your brain and leave you humming the song for hours. ‘You Kissed Me First’, meanwhile, is a feisty number in which Pearce unapologetically explains where a hook up or first date might well lead. A third track, ‘Lightning in a Bottle’ could also be added to this group. At first listen it feels like a sequel to ‘Hide the Wine’, but maybe that’s just because it’s alcohol themed. Numerous listens gives the track chance to breathe a little as Carly recounts catching the proverbial ‘lightning in a bottle’ on what might well be a first date. It feels a little autobiographical, maybe, too. Well written by Hannah Ellis and Anna Vaus and a real stand out, modern sounding track.
There’s the younger, playful side of womanhood represented on ‘Carly Pearce’ by the catchy ‘Heart’s Going Out of Its Mind’. Check out the banjo on the opening to this song if you need any affirmation that Carly Pearce is indeed a Country singer. At a time when many female artists, like Kelsea Ballerini, are maybe looking to dilute their Country credentials a little in an effort to all be like Halsey, Pearce has actually UPPED hers! There’s Country instrumentation all over this album and the look is great for her. ‘Heart’s…..’ is a superb example of pop-leaning 90’s influenced Country that puts me in mind of the greats like Faith and Shania and, not for the only time on this album, the much missed Mindy McCready.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see album opener, ‘Closer to You’ as a very McCready influenced track too but if you listen closer you’ll hear more modern production styles and flourishes that really bring the song into the modern era.
You want female empowerment and strength? I offer you ‘Dashboard Jesus’ and ‘Woman Down’. The former is perhaps my favourite track on the album, but then I’m a sucker for songs about the ‘open road’. Add into the mix those chugging AOR guitars and we’ve got an absolute belter of a live song for Carly to perform. ‘Woman Down’, meanwhile, has a darker, Carrie Underwood feel to it and even has echoes of female power and independence stretching back to the days when Loretta Lynn sang about taking the pill. ‘She can’t come unglued,’ Pearce sings, ‘She’s got too much to do’, as she wrestles with the struggles many woman, wives and mothers have in trying to ‘have it all’. Both songs are made for the live stage and will give Pearce the power and the umph in the arenas that she maybe didn’t have on her debut album.
Carly Pearce will also give you a glimpse inside her heart on this album, as she examines the many intricacies of love and relationships. ‘Halfway Home’, co-written by Pearce, Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz, is a number one hit in waiting. It’s a power ballad in every sense of the word, a song that Trisha Yearwood would have killed to get her hands on back in 1998. Pearce employs a slightly deeper, darker vocal timbre on a track in which she bares her soul to the man she ditched, trying to explain to him that she never meant to hurt him. ‘I broke your heart, but by mistake,’ she pleads in real diva style. This is a MASSIVE song and will easily find its way to the top of the charts if released as a single.
Other emotionally nuanced songs include ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’, which is a sort of ‘I Need a Ride Home’ part II themed song about resilience and perseverance, ‘Greener Grass’ and the very Disney-esque ‘Love Has No Heart’, which is also a potential huge hit in-waiting for Pearce. Her smoky vocals really hit the mark on this track and the Disney-style bridge which leads into the massive chorus really puts me in mind of an Ariel, or a Jasmine or an Elsa staring forlornly out of a castle (or seaweed) window as the love of their life rides (or swims) away!
No Country album is complete without a duet and this one has two! Current single ‘I Hope Your Happy Now’, co-written with Luke Combs, is riding high in the charts right now and is quite simply the best duet we’ve heard since Chris Young and Cassadee Pope. ‘….Happy Now’ really benefits from the addition of Lee Brice’s older, gruffer vocals and features the type of nuanced lyrics that you maybe don’t take in on first listen. It’s a terrific story built solely around the play on words that ‘I hope you’re happy now’ could mean. Carly means one thing, Brice another and together they are electric.
The second duet, unsurprisingly, is with Carly’s new husband and fellow Country singer, Michael Ray. Look closely and you’ll see the track, ‘Finish Your Sentences’, was actually co-written by Kelsea Ballerini and Thomas Rhett amongst others! What a pedigree and what a huge surprise the song is. For those of you out there expecting some huge, soppy love ballad about forever, eternities and all that mushy love stuff you are going to be surprised. ‘….Sentences’ is actually perhaps the most modern sounding, least Country sounding song on the album. That’s not a criticism, after all, this is a VERY Country sounding album. Pearce and Ray take it in turns to finish each other’s sentences in a very cool, funky way. Yes, it’s a love song but it might not be the love song you were expecting. Its sharper, cleverer and funkier than that.
Carly Pearce, with just her second album, has produced a real career defining moment. She’s not only stayed within the genre she loves, she’s actually gone and got MORE Country: in the same way Jon Pardi did on his transition from ‘California Sunrise’ to ‘Heartache Medication’. This is commercial Country music at its finest and it deserves to be judged alongside anything produced by the greats of the 90’s like Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood. Pearce opens herself up to her fans and shows them all the different sides that there are to her and that there are to all women. In that sense, it’s an incredibly inclusive album, an album that represents women everywhere – their strengths, their weaknesses, their feistiness and their flaws. It’s sultry in places, playful in others. It’s focused and determined on some songs, emotionally broken elsewhere. It’s an album ABOUT women and it’s a triumph of sound, style, lyrics and production. With this album, Pearce announces herself as a real player, a real presence in the Country music world, now and hopefully for years to come.