REVIEW: Cam - Untamed

Cam - Untamed

It’s refreshing when an artist lives up to the hype. I always feel relieved for the artist, and selfishly, relieved as a listener that a great single hadn’t gotten my hopes up. Breakout artist Cam released Untamed, her first full length album, this week to much anticipation. And by much anticipation, I mean you couldn’t listen to country radio in Nashville for the past two months for thirty minutes without hearing “Burning House,” her breakout single, at least once.

Cam first caught my attention around the release of her EP, Welcome to Cam Country this past March. Her bio was strange: writing credits for Miley Cyrus, living in L.A., but now coming to country radio. At risk of sounding like a country purist/curmudgeon, I wrote her off as a branch of country pop so pop that it might as well just stay on pop radio. Country radio should not be a shortcut to crossover to pop radio.

I was taken by “My Mistake,” however, which was her first single off Untamed. Admittedly, it sounded far from country, but I loved the bright and fun pop sound, as well as the clever writing and bold attitude. This single didn’t do much on country radio (peaked at 52), and I think that is what made “Burning House” so surprising.

In the midst of this summer’s women on the radio/tomato discussion, Cam was a buzzed about newcomer at CMA Fest stages. “Burning House” was released as a single just two days after the end of the festival.

Cam performing “Burning House” during CMA Fest with Kelsea Ballerini

This was right on the heels of the success of “Girl Crush,” the magical hit for Little Big Town that proved woman-driven ballads still had a home on country radio. “Burning House” picked up momentum, and is now in the #4 slot on this week’s Billboard Country chart.

What I found refreshing about Cam’s hit is her story behind it: she owned up to doing a past lover wrong, and the song is a dream she had after seeing him at a party after the breakup. A breakup song where you are not the one at fault is a lot easier to write, but I love that she wrote from the other perspective. This, paired with her attitude in “My Mistake,” calling a man “her mistake to make,” made me like Cam even more. Her self-possessed attitude paired with her talent set her apart from other artists pushing their first or second country singles for me.

“Burning House” was co-written with Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker, who also produced the track and the rest of Untamed. Bhasker is known for his work with Kayne West, and his Grammy-winning work with Jay-Z and Fun. He has also worked with Taylor Swift, the closest any other artist on his list of production credits came to country.

The superstar lineup of Bhasker’s production credits, as well as Cam’s L.A. background explains the pop sensibility of Untamed. A few buried banjos and train sounds don’t make this album country to me. It has an out-of-place campy song about the idea of being country that is the only real low point on the album for me. I’m still trying to figure out what makes it country other than it is on a country label and has singles on country radio, but I suppose there is no rubric for what is or isn’t country, so go right ahead, Cam. It is pop, but not only that-- it’s excellent songwriter pop driven by thoughtful writing and smart pop hooks.

The emphasis on witty writing and storytelling is what ties it to country more than the occasional pedal steel tracks on the album. “Hungover on Heartache” resurrects the love-as-drinking trope in an honest way that I can’t stop listening to. “Runaway Train” is another extended metaphor, which we all recognize as country, but done so well and couched in creative production that it doesn’t seem recognizable as a familiar structure.

Even when the writing falls a little flat, Cam’s vocal talent carries the album. “Mayday” is a beautiful showcase of Cam’s voice that somehow gets away with using cliches like “sinking ship” and “sink or swim” because of how it sounds.

“Want it All” is another high point, as is the rollicking “Half Broke Heart,” which was also released on her EP but takes on a new life on the full length album. The album should be an easy sell for anyone who likes Pink or Kelly Clarkson, but also for anyone who likes Faith Hill or the Dixie Chicks.

The songs on Untamed all fall between the 2:50 - 3:50 range, with the average falling somewhere right around 3:10. The 3 minute song is the undeniable mark of pop, but don’t mistake that for any sort of reduction of the work here: good pop music is very difficult to make, and Cam sustains excellent pop music with a country sensibility throughout her debut Untamed. Cam is up for a Grammy for Best Solo Country Performance for “Burning House” this year, and rightfully so.