Here’s an uncomfortable truth with reviewing music – Once we’ve heard an artist even just once, we immediately set up expectations for future releases. And, try as we may, we all have biases we can’t completely shake. Nothing can replace hearing an artist for the first time.
Hence why my favorite acts to cover are the ones that weren’t on my radar until recently. And, since first impressions are everything, I’m comfortable in stating that Juliet McConkey’s Disappearing Girl is one of the most promising debuts of the year, fitting squarely into country music’s beloved Texas scene, but falling more in line with works from lyrical poets like Jamie Lin Wilson, Courtney Patton, Wade Bowen and Jason Eady.
Which is to say that, despite McConkey branding her music as “McConkey-tonk,” Disappearing Girl is a mostly stripped-down affair, favoring powerful songwriting over its actual presentation. It’s country music – of course the focus should be on strong narrative ambition. But there’s usually more to these efforts than that, and with a subtle focus on melody and mood, there’s plenty to appreciate about the album’s soundscape.
Of course, that’s a note on McConkey herself, who, while not a technically compelling performer in terms of power or range, is compelling as an interpreter, bringing a sense of hangdog weariness to the album that benefits its bleaker moments. Take, for example, opening the album’s title track a capella, with McConkey exerting a sense of weathered exhaustion to what, ultimately, is a tale of a search for justice that never comes. Yet the exhaustion is two-pronged, clearly showing frustration at how a missing woman’s body will likely never be found, but also from pondering the circumstances that shaped the killer’s mindset. It’s not so much empathy as it is trying to understand the root of the problems these characters on this album face.
I would, however, say empathy is a constant for this project as a whole. And I love how drawn out these stories are, highlighting the complexities that come with facing them head-on and never offering easy answers. Take “The Deep End,” for example, where McConkey has a chance encounter with an old friend reeling from a failed music career. The thing is, for as much as McConkey tries to offer some helpful advice for the person, she knows that offering hope is a fleeting essence, and she’s then left caught in that awkward position of questioning her own implications, as a fellow musician, in what she could have done to help when it was needed most. Yet there’s never any judgment cast either way; it’s more of a reminder to keep your eyes open from now on and move on the best way possible. You can’t change the past, but you can change how you approach similar situations in the future.
Again, too, it’s where the subtleties in the composition really take effect, with the minor, liquid acoustic strums picking up more presence alongside the uptick in tempo courtesy of the drums, highlighting the growing tensions and guilt facing McConkey in that particular situation. It’s part of why I also love “River Run,” opting for a similar technical precision in crafting the overwhelming pressure of trying to live up to everyone’s expectations. And it’s never McConkey’s story to tell. If anything, she counts herself as one of the lucky ones, but she’s also well aware that difference isn’t the same as acknowledging inferiority or superiority, which is one reason why “I’ve Got A Dollar” rings with a quiet effectiveness. It’s somewhere in the middle, but not without a purpose, hence why she underplays the character’s happiness on “Good Times on the Horizon.” There’s joy in her discovering her pregnancy, but it’s counterbalanced with the acknowledgment that, with her and her significant other working low-paying jobs, there’s an understandable fear in how to approach tomorrow, even if it’s an undeniable miracle.
Of course, that this album catches itself somewhere in the middle also makes for a thorough, but exhausting listen at points. For as much as I understand her choice to question if her new relationship on “Las Vegas Rambler” is real or if her significant other is just looking for a temporary fling, it feels overwrought in its framing, focusing more on the possibilities of it all, rather than pointing out any obvious problems. And while, again, I often like the well-worn mix of firmly plucked acoustics and strong melodies, I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of warmth to the presentation at points, especially when it can sound unfocused and messy toward the end of “Hung The Moon.” And while “The Deep End,” the title track and “River Run” all have their subtle little details that help them stand out, the project really starts to run together toward its end, especially when the piano and organ tones feel muted on “Tempered Hands” and “Like A Rose,” respectively. At nine tracks, it certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome, but it does feel like an exhausting listen without a real emotional payoff sometimes.
But the writing is often strong enough to justify it anyway – it’s that good, offering a real knack for detail that, while not hopeless, isn’t going to offer easy solutions for its characters, either. It’s more grounded and human than that, and while there’s some stiff competition in country music for that sort of songwriting, this is a promising start for McConkey.
Recommended tracks: “The Deep End,” “Disappearing Girl,” “River Run”