Album Review: Alice Wallace – ‘Into The Blue’

The short version: Alice Wallace’s ‘Into The Blue’ pays tribute to her home of California in a different way than past albums, and this makes for an incredibly good listen. With that said, the project can feel a tad scattershot sonically and lyrically.

  • Favorite tracks: “Echo Canyon,” “Santa Ana Winds,” “Desert Rose,” “The Lonely Talking,” “Elephants”
  • Least favorite track: “The Same Old Song”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose my home.

I don’t just mean “lose” as in moving somewhere else, I’m referring to natural disasters that affect us and the people around us. California singer/songwriter Alice Wallace was one of many residents to watch her birth state literally go up in flames last year, and that anguish and sadness is captured well on her newest album, Into The Blue.

Into The Blue is a loaded album overall tackling many themes and perspectives, but for the most part, there’s a uniqueness to this record. It’s an album that pays tribute to her home state as well as captures its spirit well. For those who have enjoyed similar western sounding albums from Lindi Ortega, Marty Stuart and Colter Wall in past years, Into The Blue is definitely worth checking out.

What elevates this material to great heights is Wallace herself. She’s got an insane amount of firepower, but her range is even more impressive, enough to where I’d argue you could add her name to the list of country’s greatest current vocalists. In terms of her approach though, I’m reminded a lot of Karen Jonas, namely in how alluring she can sound in her lower register and rope the listener in.

The best moments on Into The Blue happen when Wallace matches darker production tones with her haunting vocals. Whether she’s using her range to its full extent on the chorus of “Santa Ana Winds” or singing in a more hushed tone to set a more sinister mood on tracks like “Desert Rose” or “Echo Canyon,” these are individually unique moments that rank as some of the best of the year thus far.

All of these moments contribute nicely to the album’s sense of atmosphere though. This extends toward the production and vocals, but there’s a very lonesome feel to this album. Her chilling endnote on “Desert Rose” reads as the sendoff from a mother to her child, and “The Blue” comes with the realization that while things are unsteady now, they’ll be alright eventually.

When it comes to the production, if there’s one criticism to be had with this project, it’s that it feels scattershot, and that extends to its lyrical content as well. There’s a unique sound here, but it never quite fully connects. The album opens with another one of its best tracks, “The Lonely Talking” with its burnished electric guitar and reverb adding nicely to the album’s sense of anguish. That atmosphere extends mostly toward the aforementioned tracks as well, especially “Desert Rose” with its Spanish feel and the grimier outlaw feel of “Echo Canyon.”

But you’ll also get tracks like the softer acoustic cuts of “Elephants” and “The Blue,” both excellent songs, but also ones that start a pattern on this album of its constant shifting. After “Echo Canyon,” the album tends to tilt more into generic singer/songwriter and East Nashville territory, particularly “The Same Old Song” which seems to be missing a lot of body in its production, particularly in the low end. The album ends strongly with another great cut in “For Califia,” but it also highlights how this album is constantly trying to find some footing. The sad part is that it already found it.

And while that problem extends somewhat toward the lyrics, there’s a bit of a better balance here. As noted before, there’s an anguished feel to this project, and that extends toward its thematic arc as well. There’s a feeling of helplessness that permeates this album. The more direct example comes through on the excellent “Santa Ana Winds” where the prayers aren’t working. All anyone can do at this point is watch everything go up in flames, and while it’s a bleak perspective, it doesn’t come without the fact that everyone tried to fight it while they could.

If that song is the legitimate portrayal of destruction though, the remainder of the songs here feel like they’re stuck in the immediate aftermath of not knowing where to go or what to do next. Sometimes that feeling is captured metaphorically through relationships like on “The Lonely Talking.” Other times, rich detailed stories are fleshed out like on “Desert Rose,” a story of an immigrant woman escaping not for herself, but for her child to have a better life knowing full well that child may be the only one who survives to live it when the journey is over.

Even while the inspirational message of “The Blue” might read as cloying, the nautical imagery and sharper songwriting enhance it. More than that though, it’s the kind of small beacon of hope the album needs, if only to have something to hold onto. “When She Cries” is the album’s other stab at retro-soul next to “The Same Old Song,” only here there’s a rougher edge to the guitar work and a meatier organ bolstering the track along with a gospel choir. It provides a more joyous, upbeat feel and an appreciation for a rainy day after a long struggle. It also comes with the realization that the narrator never appreciated the sunnier days, one of many small details scattered throughout this album that provides for a richer song. In other words, it’s a sharper way to use the old phrase of “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

Of course, the quiet, reflective “Echo Canyon” where Wallace is as lonesome as the desert she sings about is also another example where the gloomier perspective results in a highlight. With a swampier bass line that recalls the best of Waylon Jennings, this is just a stunning song all around in all areas.

At the end of the day though, Into The Blue tries to remain hopeful, and that’s why it’s so fitting it closes with “For Califia,” a really well-written song that personifies the spirit of California as rising like a phoenix from the ashes (almost literally, really). It’s a short track, but it says all it needs to.

Into The Blue also throws the listener for a curveball completely with “Elephants,” a timely track addressing the #MeToo movement. The track plays things smart by framing its message in an actual story with a perspective that really happens far too often. Of course, this is also where the aforementioned perspective criticism comes into play, as “Motorcycle Ride” tries to deliver a message to take chances. The problem comes in its framing though, where a lonely woman takes a chance by hopping on the back of some guy’s motorcycle after she talked with him for 10 minutes (surely enough time to get to know somebody well … ). It’s an odd way to frame the message, and again, it contradicts the earlier message on this album to watch your back. Another odd framing issue comes through on “The Same Old Song,” where Wallace simply says she’s looking for ways to sing well … the same old song. On an album that explores environmental destruction and other timely issues, it feels out of place, especially in this genre.

Into The Blue’s front half is also admittedly more well rounded than its second half, as something such as “Top Of The World” can feel a bit unmemorable and sleepy despite featuring another excellent vocal performance.

Despite the fact that it can be scattershot at times though, Into The Blue is an excellent listen all around. On an album that can feel uneasy in some points and hopeful in others, Into The Blue features many highlights that are excellent in all areas. Wallace set out to craft an album that would honor California, and while she did that, she also went beyond that to simply craft a great album that stands as one no one should miss this year.

(Light 8/10)

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