This is the second part of a review roundup for albums released within the past week, and one released earlier in the year.
The music industry is a business, but it’s not necessarily a competition. Past and current art constantly informs and inspires itself, and though there’s only so many spaces on a chart, to the real people that matter – the fans, especially in country music – there’s room for just about everyone. Still, there’s an immense amount of pressure placed upon Arlo McKinley, the final artist to gain John Prine’s approval before his passing in April. It’s hard not to see the parallels between McKinley’s own career path and the subject he often sings about – the decay of the oft-forgotten Midwest and the beauty that still surrounds it, if one is willing to look for it, that is – and how, at 40 years old, little hope remained for McKinley’s career until Prine took notice.
With Die Midwestern, McKinley certain doesn’t let Prine down, though I must admit I wasn’t quite sold on this record upon my first few listens. There’s a rugged, lived-in character to McKinley’s voice, which, while a bit nasal, can rise to some extreme emotional heights on the album’s bleakest moments. Which is why I can’t quite say for sure if it’s a problem with McKinley himself coming across a bit thin on the microphone or a mixing issue, but it never feels like he’s sitting high enough in the mix to truly roar with his fullest intensity, which isn’t helped by the backing vocals always feeling a bit muddier than they should be. There’s a new arrangement given to his own “Bag Of Pills” here, and while it’s still a great song, it never strikes the right balance in the crescendo between the piano and drums, especially in the back half where it feels like it’s practically drowning out McKinley, who, to be fair, also has a tendency to over-sing some of the material at points.
Which, granted, could be part of the larger point of this project – insights into the lives of characters cast aside and forgotten about, left to fight their battles on their own because the rest of the world has moved on. For as much as I was hoping for more of an insight into the regional aspects of the Midwest here, the larger focus is cast upon the mental anguish these characters face trying to survive in dead-end towns. They hold out hope, and they sometimes even picture a better life in their heads, but they’re also well aware of their reality and what really awaits them with each passing day.
So Die Midwestern, then, sets up false expectations from the start: “We Were Alright” finds itself caught in the moments leading up to the end of a relationship, with a character caught somewhere between denial and regret, but knowing full well those memories are all he’ll have to lean on someday. There’s always an air of optimism to these tracks. Somber as they get, one always gets the feeling McKinley could sink lower than he already is. That, of course, certainly helps the melodic presentation, where even though he’s left to repeat his mistakes on “She’s Always Around,” the brighter melody playing off the barroom piano suggests this character is somewhat all right with that; it gives him something to hold onto, at least.
And even if there’s problems with the vocal mixing here and there, the same comment doesn’t extend toward the instrumentation and production, which is ragged, yet surprisingly more melodic than otherwise expected. Sure, there’s the aforementioned problems with “Bag Of Pills,” but even it serves to show how much McKinley and his team are working to try and compliment the tunes: from the long, drawn-out fiddle play on the title track to hold out hope for one more chance at something in life; the moodier electric guitar in “The Hurtin’s Done” to highlight actual pain and the reality of what that fight to “move on” is actually going to look like; the more chipper interplay between the fiddles and organ on “Suicidal Saturday Night” to offer some levity to the project; and the more pronounced, rumbled guitar groove of “Gone For Good” to have that reality actually hit home for this character.
With that said, I do wish the instrumentation had a bit more rough texture and flavor to make this album stand out more. As it stands, it’s a fairly conventional downward spiral for a country album, and I wish it aimed a bit bigger to nail the dramatic stakes of the writing. Of course, there’s also a few clunkier cuts in the back half – namely “Once Again,” which feels a bit too conventional overall, and “Whatever You Want,” which feels a bit clumsy in its poetic structure and lacking the deeper emotional pathos usually needed for these tales of devotion.
Still, while I’m a bit hesitant on the score for this album, I also can tell it’s the sort of raw, emotional anguish that’s mostly executed well here, even if there’s still room for improvement. With that said, there’s a rare sort of beauty in the little details to this album, and it’s worth taking a closer listen, even when the hurt on display is pretty potent as it is.
Recommended tracks: “The Hurtin’s Done,” “We Were Alright,” “She’s Always Around”
We’re far enough removed from the bro-country era to have it not immediately frame conversations about new country music, but also caught somewhere between assessing its aftermath and legacy and saying goodbye for good. The A-listers from the time, of course, have stuck around, even if they’re struggling to adapt and have largely given way to other names like Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen (which, in the latter case, isn’t much of a tradeup, if it’s even one at all).
And for as everyone else, you know, the artists who attained a few minor hits from the trend before dashing off into relative obscurity – your Tyler Farrs, Canaan Smiths and Thousand Horses, for example – it’s mostly been a positive shift. It’s just a shame that one name among the bro-country casualties is Eric Paslay, a songwriter who released a fantastic debut album in 2014, bolstered by hit single “Friday Night,” yet significantly weakened by it, too. Everything since then has been less than stellar, though, and it’s not surprising to see Paslay’s team completely switch ahead of the release of his sophomore album, Nice Guy.
It’s mostly for the worse, too. Paslay’s technical songwriting abilities are still fairly sound, but the melodies feel clunkier this time around, particularly on “Off The Edge Of Summer” and “Just Once,” even if the overall hooks are still there. It’s also a fairly organic listen – a positive attribute that helped his debut stand out in a time period when that wasn’t the norm for new country artists – and the crisp, atmospheric guitar melodies are wistful and breezy, which can even make filler like “Under Your Spell” go down pretty smooth. But the percussion is mostly clunky, and the overemphasis on drums doesn’t help when the mix often places them right at the front, which can stifle the grooves of tracks like “Boat In A Bottle” and “Heartbeat Higher.” It’s a bright, shimmering listen that often feels like it’s caught between warm and breezy and loud and overbearing.
But considering Paslay’s main strength before was his songwriting, it’s a shame that it mostly takes a backseat on this project. I suppose there’s some meta-subtext in the thematic arc of acknowledging he’s an artist past his prime – weird as it is, the “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” cover sort of makes sense here. But a cover like that gets counterbalanced with the title track, where Paslay is going to stir up controversy and be unlikable just to get attention, because, after all, “it doesn’t pay to be a nice guy in a bad guy world.” Beyond being tone-deaf for the moment, even if it’s not meant to be taken seriously, it’s still not particularly likable or carries any real point, especially when the message basically goes against the aforementioned cover anyway, which is too personal to Mike Posner’s situation to actually work anyway.
Sadly, most of the rest of this material resorts to being fairly substandard love songs that run together, including two summer-themed songs in “Off The Edge Of The Summer” and “Endless Summer Dream” that are among the most uninspired cuts here. To be fair, there’s also a strong focus on family toward the end, where the run of songs starting with “Under Your Spell” and ending with “Wild and Young” before picking back up with “On This Side Of Heaven” pretty much redeems this album. Paslay’s never been a great singer in terms of either power or range, but he’s always performed his material with conviction and passion in spite of those limitations. There is a noticeable heart to the sentiments here, which elevates the childlike simplicity and wonder of “Wild & Young.” On that note, at least his love songs are all purely focused on the romance and offering his characters some actual, you know, character. “Woman Like Her” is one of those songs that usually resorts to leering misogyny, even if unintentional, but Paslay actually looks on at his significant other with admiration and respect, especially when he knows he couldn’t do everything she does. It’s just an overall sophomore slump that even Paslay himself suggests will largely be forgotten in time, even if it carries a few decent moments along the way.
Recommended tracks: “Under Your Spell,” “Wild & Young,” “On This Side Of Heaven”
The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs Of Mickey Newbury
It’s important to pause and consider this album for what it really is – an homage to Mickey Newbury, a songwriter who shaped Gretchen Peters’ own lyrical scope, for sure, but also an album where Peters, a gifted songwriter in her own right, offers, above all else, respect. The Songs Of Mickey Newbury isn’t a collection of hit records, and by honoring a songwriter who acted as a storyteller first and foremost, Peters honors the lyric and understands the characters here better than anyone before, save for Newbury himself.
It’s hard not to see the parallels between the two songwriters – both are observational poets who question themselves and the world around them, yet never quite come to any comfortable conclusions, because real life doesn’t always work that way. They serve blunt honesty meant to inspire, question and act accordingly, all while sprinkling in some lighthearted humor along the way, even if it’s of a drier variety.
Which is another way of saying that, even if “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” is as much as a tribute to Kenny Rogers as it is to Newbury, Peters’ low, understated growl paints a harrowing portrait of a character we’ve never quite understood as well as we do now. Not to say that presentation doesn’t matter here – it does, albeit in a much quieter, restrained fashion – it’s that it has to serve the lyric first and foremost, hence why this downward spiral comes with an arrangement that’s among Peters’ darkest yet.
The thing is, this isn’t meant to be Peters’ story or just her take on old songs. That it all just naturally comes across that way is a testament to how much Peters understands these works. There’s a heart to this project that shows how songwriters understand best how to serve a song, especially when it’s one of their own. It’s hard not to hear the inspiration, particularly on the country-inspired “Leavin’ kentucky,” where a character runs – but doesn’t hide – from whatever problems she left back home. There’s no closure because that’s not how either songwriter operates; what they lack in accessibility, they more than make up for in insight and nuance.
Which, speaking of, is one of criticisms for this project. Peters’ own projects are slow burns, and the common criticism there is not so much a lack of levity, but a lack in tempo. The same rule applies here, save for her jaunty take on the barn-burning “Why You Been Gone So Long.” To be fair, the sad, slow songs are where both songwriters typically shine, particularly Peters, and especially as an interpreter. But songs like “Heaven Help The Child” and “Saint Cecilia” feel a bit too sparse in their presentation. How fitting, though, that the album’s penultimate track is the latter – an homage to the patron saint of musicians – and that it closes with “Three Bells For Stephen,” which may as well act as an extended metaphor for ensuring these songs live on through time.
They will, of course. They’ve inspired countless writers, and that Peters herself understands their emotional core means not only will they be forever remembered by other writers and fans alike, but that we’ll also learn something new about them whenever we hear them again.
Recommended tracks: “The Night You Wrote That Song,” “Frisco Depot,” “Leavin’ kentucky”