Album Review: Caroline Spence – ‘Mint Condition’

Caroline Spence

The short version: ‘Mint Condition’ is Caroline Spence’s most consistent work to date. 

  • Favorite tracks: “Til You Find One,” “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes,” “Wait On The Wine,” “Angel Or Los Angeles,” “Mint Condition”
  • Least favorite track: “Long Haul”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: If there’s any artist who’s seemingly slipped under everyone’s radar, including mine, it’s Caroline Spence.

Then again, that might not be coincidental. While Spence has released two albums thus far, they always came with the note that things weren’t improving for her. Sure, independent artists have greater chances for exposure in the digital age, but not when it comes to actually supporting themselves.

Thankfully, Rounder Records at least heard something, as Spence signed there prior to the release of her latest album, Mint Condition, thereby finally having the needed promotional muscle behind her.

Despite this, it’s hard not to still hear the pain reflected in Mint Condition, particularly the journey it took to get to where Spence is now. But as a cohesive package, whereas past Spence projects could suffer from meandering sequencing or a lack of variety, Mint Condition showcases Spence in a new light.

The main draw to Spence has always been her voice. She’s not necessarily a powerful singer, and if there’s any flaw to Mint Condition, it’s that she doesn’t exercise her range a little more. It’s her emotive ability that’s rare and captivating, however. She offers the kind of sweet, softer vocal tone that’s vulnerable, mesmerizing and downright somber at times, especially on the stunning “Wait On The Wine.” For the most part, Erin Rae’s backing vocals often provide a nice ghostly swell to the mix, and Emmylou Harris’s contributions on the title track are more than welcome.

But with Spence, the other main draw is her songwriting. Mint Condition is a highly personal affair, enough to the point where it can be hard to offer an objective critical observation. But it also comes with a relatable sentiment of not wanting to be alone and not knowing what to do in the face of adversity.

Still, that doesn’t mean the album can’t find its lighthearted moments. “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes” is her tongue-in-cheek admittance that she can control at least some of her problems. But even here, she’s strong enough to where she can look on with drunken bemusement at a guy who’s trying to talk up a big game with her (and failing).

But again, that’s the lighter moment. For the most part, Mint Condition is a moodier affair. And even if it’s Spence’s story, there’s still a great focus on the scenes around her. That’s a testament to “Angels or Los Angeles,” a track where the protagonist escapes to find something better, only she doesn’t make it to her destination. Instead, the focus is on that middle portion of the trip where she gazes upon the signs and places she sees on the way and the impact it has on her. Even if “Song About A City” is one of the more straightforward tracks here, too, it still comes with the added background that she’s trying to write a song about something else besides a former lover while literally observing the city around her from a high-rise view – yet the inspiration for a song about a city still doesn’t come. The album focuses on getting away to find the answers, yet it’s also aware that escapism isn’t necessarily always the answer, nor are we going to find the true version of escapism simply by running away from our problems.

Ironically (or perhaps not), whereas the first half of Mint Condition finds Spence isolated with her vices, the second half offers a hint of optimism as she finally finds the right person. But as said before, the album is smart enough to know the lingering problems won’t ever go away. It’s amazing just how much emotion tracks like “Sit Here And Love Me,” an admittance of depression despite having the company, and “Til You Find One” are able to pull considering how simple and straightforward they are.

And whatever lingering anxieties or other fears we have likely won’t go away overnight, but it helps to either have someone to love or relate to (or both), which is why the title track is an optimistic closer focusing on the past journey from a future (happier) perspective.

Of course, considering the front and back halves of this album do tend to focus on two overarching themes, there are times where the material can start to run together. “Who Are You” is a nice reminder that we’re never really alone, but it’s a bit too vague and overshadowed compared to stronger tracks here.

Production has always been Spence’s weak point, but Mint Condition works for its variety. There are still moments I wish her voice was a little louder in the mix, particularly on the opener, “What You Don’t Know,” but again, it’s an improvement overall.

On the note of that opener, though, it does lay the foundation for the album’s sonics – warm, acoustics backed by supple bass, piano to accentuate the mood, sunnier electric guitar lines and even synthetic elements for atmosphere. It’s an album that owes more to Americana than anything else. On “What You Don’t Know,” though, the focus is on a ragged, sandier driving electric guitar melody that shows a different (but good) side to Spence.

And again, when the album opts for more burnished textures to highlight the atmospheres of, say, the lonely deserts and mountains the protagonist encounters on “Angel or Los Angeles,” it really works to sell the song. The synthetic elements of “Sometimes A Woman Is An Island” work to a surprising degree, and the catchy guitar riff of “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes” is another moment that catches you off guard in a good way.

If there’s any place to criticize this area, though, it would be in the back half. By this point, the album settles into a comfortable mid-tempo atmosphere with little differentiation despite the tracks, even despite them being some of the best here otherwise. The sunnier electric guitar tones, for example, driving “Long Haul” don’t really fit the subject matter of the track all that well (it paints a more melancholic picture to me), and the dark, foreboding atmosphere of “Who Are You” can’t save what’s essentially a weaker track here.

But as a whole, in terms of a complete package, Mint Condition rarely fails to impress. Spence’s songwriting is as excellent as ever, and this will join the exclusive camp of best lyrical albums of 2019 thus far. Vocally, while Spence could afford to exercise her range, she never fails to captivate the audience, especially on tracks like “Til You Find One” or “Wait On The Wine.” Spence longs for companionship on Mint Condition, but it’s safe to say this project will likely earn her a few fans.

(Light to decent 8/10)

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