It was obvious from Lauren Alaina’s AI audition that she has big commercial potential as a versatile teenage country/pop crossover act with a really good voice. The question for her was whether she was ready to deliver something that could appeal to crossover country fans without seeming like a weaker copycat of one of country’s established female stars. Lauren’s debut album Wildflower carves out her place by showcasing her distinctive personality: young, vivacious, flirty, mischievous and impetuous. Lauren sings with the perspective of a young girl whose ideas about love aren’t cued by the fairy tale language and good/evil world of Taylor Swift songs, but by more complex real life examples seen in family and friends. Wildflower breaks tradition with most if not all recent albums from female artists in that it does not have a single done-me-wrong breakup song. That’s a refreshing change that helps maintain the upbeat, forward-looking perspective of the album whose idea of sassiness is fearlessness about breaking out, exploring life, and figuring out who you are.
Although the biggest strength of Lauren’s voice is its soulfulness, Wildflower stays in the country/pop/rock lane while Lauren mixes country’s signature vocal curls and slides with belting at the top of her register. The standout cuts on Wildflower are the ones that let Lauren relax her voice and inject her personality into the lyrics. For example, “Growing Her Wings”, a catchy midtempo song whose groovy country/pop feel and lyrics will remind many of Sara Evans’s “Born To Fly”, proves to be the perfect fit, allowing Lauren to poke a little fun at overly strict parenting without being antagonistic about it. The song tells the story of a small town teenage girl whose increased curiosity about the things she reads in Cosmo magazine runs up against parental rules. Lauren sings about the inevitability of this girl outgrowing her sheltered life with the mischievousness and sympathy of somebody who has been there and always believed there was more out there for her. This song sets the tone for Wildflower as the statement of a young adult who isn’t afraid to say what is on her mind but has enough perspective not to overdramatize what she experiences.
Nowhere is that better reflected than on Lauren’s cowrite “The Funny Thing About Love”. The song is built on a Luke Laird guitar riff that’s a cousin of the one in Miranda Lambert’s “Baggage Claim” (which he also cowrote) but this song is more of a groovy polished pop song sung with the occasional country inflections. Fans are likely to read a lot into lyrics like “We were best friends until I kissed you/I know you liked it/And I did too” but whether or not they reflect Lauren’s recent experience, she shows wry perspective in lines like “soon as you admit you’re crazy about me/I’m off and running so soon enough you’ll see/The funny thing about love/It never makes sense”. Lauren’s candid approach to young love is likely to continue generating discussion. But her ability to focus on the whimsical side of things and not cast blame help her avoid the appearance of somebody trying to gain attention through her personal life. Lyrically, “The Funny Thing About Love” has a very weak 1st verse. But Lauren sings with conviction that makes it clear this song belongs on the album even if it isn’t one of its strongest tracks.
That same combination of investment and perspective is what makes Lauren’s performance of “Eighteen Inches” work. In fact it’s easy to imagine the “Growing Her Wings” girl becoming the girl in “Eighteen Inches”. The song is a very pretty 3/4 time country/pop waltz about 2 young adults in love who run off to start a new life together, and features one of the best lyrical hooks on the album: “When you’re young and in love, yeah you might do some things that don’t seem all that smart/Cause there ain’t no greater distance than the 18 inches from your head to your heart.” Lauren’s phrasing conveys her belief in the 2 runaways’ love and determination without romanticizing their decisions, and it grounds this story of crazy young love in reality. People familiar with cowriter Carrie Underwood will find a melody that seems tailor-made for Carrie’s voice and the 3 part, multi-generational story she favors, but Lauren’s youth lends an innocence to the story that makes her the right person for this song.
That innocent idealism drives Wildflower’s most touching songs: “The Locket” and “Dirt Road Prayer”. What we learn from these songs is that Lauren may be a little bit of a rebel looking beyond a sheltered life, but she is also a good hearted girl who loves her family and has internalized the values she has seen them live. “The Locket” tells the story of a woman who at 14 years old met the man who would become her husband of 60 years, from the perspective of her granddaughter who is now trying to help her ailing grandmother cope with his loss while she struggles to keep his memory alive. It is a smoothly but simply produced ballad that works for Lauren not only because she sings it mostly in a lovely, emotive head voice, but because her phrasing conveys how a young girl’s vision of true love would form from her grandmother’s love story.
That beautiful head voice reappears for most of “Dirt Road Prayer”, in which a young girl is feeling a little lost but finds her bearings by praying for various members of her family and for guidance. But there’s more to this song and Lauren’s vulnerable and weary performance. It isn’t simply a prayer for resolution, it’s a reach out to her family to feel close to them again. A lovely fiddle enhances the lonely vibe of the song.
Though “The Locket” and “Dirt Road Prayer” benefit from relatively sparse production, a lot of Wildflower is more heavily produced. “Georgia Peaches” kicks off the album with some Jew’s harp before the fiddle and the Jason Aldean-esque rock/country feel kicks in, pushing Lauren into an attempt at Southern swagger when she would have been better off doing a more playful interpretation. “Georgia Peaches” and “Wildflower” are both country rockers sung in a higher key than the writers sing them. “The Middle” builds a pop/rock wall of sound to support its anthemic, inspirational memories. The sheer volume of the production on these songs sometimes leaves Lauren shouting to be heard at the expense of interpretation, especially on “Wildflower”.
But Lauren doesn’t have to force the issue on the flirty country rockers “I’m Not One Of Them” and “One Of Those Boys”, the first of which sasses a boy who thinks his car and big city money will impress any girl and the second of which sets out what she is looking for in a guy. Although neither of the songs really stands out as especially original, they are both catchy (especially “One Of Those Boys” which sounds a lot like Gretchen Wilson’s “Here For The Party” and Ashton Shepherd’s “Look It Up”), likeable, excellent fits for Lauren’s personality, and they are both songs that should appeal to women as well as teenage girls.
“Tupelo” is a well written, nostalgic remembrance of a love-soaked summer road trip that diverges from the rest of the album in that it is the kind of soulful song that should help Lauren stake out her niche in the country world. Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of soulfulness in Lauren’s vocal but give her a few years, and she’ll have the sultriness the chorus needs down pat. Lauren still sounds nice and the inclusion of this song lays out the path for her to grow.
So how does Wildflower handle that 2 way challenge of appealing to AI fans while opening the door for Lauren to grab a foothold in country music? A big strength of the album is how it sets out a very distinct point of view that fits a teenage girl but differentiates itself from Taylor Swift and has enough perspective that women should still be able to relate. AI fans will recognize that personality as Lauren’s and those less familiar will discover a strong, lovely, and young voice with a fresh outlook. The melodies on Wildflower are catchy and strong from start to finish.
Though the production doesn’t always play to Lauren’s strengths there is plenty of strong single material on Wildflower that should convince PDs/MDs that she speaks to a desired radio demographic and therefore would be a smart add to their playlists. Wildflower introduces a strong singer and improving interpreter who should be seen as a good investment for country music’s gatekeepers as she works out a sound that is truest to the qualities of her versatile and appealing voice.
Singles please: “Growing Her Wings” (“Born To Fly” redux but it fits Lauren so well and it’s catchy), “Eighteen Inches” (great melody, dynamic production, lyrics+Lauren=good storytelling, it’ll stand out on the radio), “Locket” or “Dirt Road Prayer” (lovely and heartfelt X2), “One Of Those Boys” (since there probably needs to be an uptempo)
Skippers: “Like My Mother Does”, “The Middle” (catchy hook/some weak lyrics/too fuzzy a story/too loud), “Wildflower” (free the banjo!)
Secret Muppet dream: “Wildflower” with Janice bringing back the banjo while the whole Muppet chorus dances and backs Lauren. Kermit sweetly presents Lauren with a bouquet at the end of the performance while Miss Piggy looks like her head is about to explode. Statler & Waldorf are caught singing “nana na na nana nana nana nana nana nana”.