You don't have to see the numbers to get that country radio skews female these days. The hatted hunks who a generation back might have had ramblin' fever now sing of sunny-forever fidelity that would be right at home on the last page of a Harlequin.
The women, meanwhile, still raise hell, with Carrie Underwood bashing in windshields, Reba trying out light BDSM with her mic cord, and Miranda Lambert coming on all peaches-and-cream with fancy girls before getting up in their faces to declare "We're just like you, only prettier." (Seriously, check that one out. It's as close as anyone in music gets these days to Big Star.)
On two newish singles this week, done-wrong young beauties Ashton Shepherd and the Band Perry pick fights with the utter louts they were dumb enough to hook up with. One song is solid, the other is spectacular, and if Toby Keith were to flip the genders and record either, everyone would call him sexist.
Ashton Shepherd, "Look It Up"
On "Look It Up," Ashton Shepherd doesn't raise hell so much as rain it down on some hard-drinking fool-around who -- like the male country stars of decades past -- thought he could get away with doing a woman wrong. In the video, she even comes right out and calls him "asshole."
Playhouse burning is a venerable genre, and "Look It Up" almost makes it as a venerable entry, one boasting a barbed lyric, a snarling put-down delivery, and a funky electric piano that's kin to the ones over which Loretta used to chew out Conway. "The word is 'faithful,'" Shepherd spits, and adds, "Look it up." Then, for the next three minutes, riding a feisty swamp stomp, she harangues this schmoe with words she thinks he needs to check out at Dictionary.com.
That's kind of dumb: cheaters don't cheat out of failure to understand the definitions of "faithful" and "forever." Cheaters cheat out of a failure to honor those definitions.
Still, it's a one-joke song in a format that often has no jokes at all, so that counts for something. Plus, it's brisk and humble: over in three minutes and the only current country hit I can think of that doesn't drop all the instruments out for a dramatic breath just before a climax the size of air-force flyover. There's even a go at a second joke toward the end, something about how Jesus might forgive the cheater some day while Shepherd sure won't, but that one's nicked from a 25 year old Lyle Lovett record.
Verdict: Pretty good, but not un-redundant.
The Band Perry, "You Lie"
Like their mopey yet glorious self-penned hit "If I Die Young," the Band Perry's "You Lie" opens in sour-chorded R.E.M. string-band mode. But this one's by Music Row professionals, so one verse in it hits with a chorus so big (and out of nowhere) Kelly Clarkson might call it gauche. But that chorus tumbles along on rare melodic inventiveness, and Kimberly Perry's voice spritzes through it like champagne uncorked: frothing, messy, golden, delicious.
As she runs through a clever/dumb lyric listing all the things that her cheating schmuck lies like (Persian rug, coon dog, Pontchartrain floodwaters), she never spins a line the same way twice. Perry revels in her voice in a way that's sing-along inviting, like old Dolly or Aretha, rather than behold-my-glory intimidating, like Celine or Mariah. My favorite of her many inspirations: She bubbles up into a big pop crescendo on kill you and do the world a service but then immediately talk-sings a line about her daddy like she's Brittany Murphy playing Luanne on King of the Hill.
And unlike the more workaday dressing down of Shepherd's "Look it Up," this song stings: "That's not my perfume/ I bet she had a curfew," Perry sniffs, and the line is so strong, and the choruses so rousing, and the singing so sun-touched, that I can't help but imagine hometown girls staring down their jackasses while belting it at karaoke.
Other excellent touches: the jangling piano that sounds like its played only by elbows, and the way the ambiguous line "You lie like a penny in the parking-lot at the grocery store" is immediately followed by the explanatory "It's just that natural for you." Someone took a college writing class!
Verdict: As good as pop -- or pop country -- gets.
Note: Steve Leftridge at Popmatters has done some good thinking on Nashville's whole women-get-to-kick-ass-while-men-must-dimple-while-smiling thing.