Album Review: Ian Noe – ‘Between The Country’

The short version: Ian Noe’s ‘Between The Country’ is a stunning portrayal of southern living framed by excellent storytelling, passionate performances and equally great production. For a debut, this is exceptional, though, this is exceptional in any capacity. In other words, it’s one of the best albums of 2019 thus far.

  • Favorite tracks: “Letter To Madeline,” “Dead On The River (Rolling Down),” “Between The Country,” “Meth Head,” “Barbara’s Song”
  • Least favorite track: “Loving You”
  • Rating: 9/10

The long version: I don’t know what’s in the air in 2019, but there have been several stellar debut albums this year. If we’re looking beyond this year, though, it’s the state of Kentucky that’s brought us the cream of the crop in terms of high-quality music lately.

So let’s add one more name to the list – Ian Noe.

Despite Noe just releasing his debut album, Between The Country, he hardly needs the groundswell to break through. His excellent 2017 EP, Off This Mountaintop, may have been overlooked, but he got his start opening for Colter Wall on tour. It also helps that he has a ringing endorsement from Aquaman actor Jason Momoa.

Plus, with additional artists tapping him for tour support like Blackberry Smoke and Son Volt, Noe’s already been heralded as the “next big thing,” and whether that’s in country, folk or Americana, when the comparisons to Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers start rolling in, the answer just may be “all three.”

Upon listening to his debut album, Between The Country, this is one of those albums that truly floored me the first time I heard it, and has continued to do so with every repeated listen. The John Prine and Bob Dylan comparisons are going to be inevitable when dissecting Noe’s style, but his portrait of Eastern Kentucky life is a dark, depressing listen that’s backed by excellent writing and production (courtesy of Dave Cobb just to, you know, add a bit more fuel to this fire). It’s hard to give the short version of how excellent this album is, but I guarantee it’ll be one of the best of 2019 come December.

Perhaps the strangest part about this album is, for as much attention as it’s gotten from the country music media, it’s more in line with the folk styling of the ’60s and ’70s. Again, it’ll be hard to shake the high-strung nasally tone of Prine or the pure tone of Dylan when you hear Noe’s voice, and perhaps finding a more unique style is one of the few criticisms I can muster for this project. But I’d also argue this isn’t an album trying to directly copy that era or style. There’s a few touches of modernity to this project that separate it, most notably in the abundant swells of organ and the added reverb to the guitar lines on several tracks.

On the note of production, however, while Cobb seems to produce just about everyone these days, this is the kind of project he excels best at – just letting the songs breathe and speak for themselves. This is more of a note on lyricism, but in terms of pure atmosphere, it’s hard to find flaws with this project. From the crescendo of the sinister-sounding electric guitar leads during the chorus of the title track to the somber acoustic finger-picking of “Dead On The River (Rolling Down),” it’s as if every note or instrumental flourish serves its purpose as it was intended.

But we can’t dance around the songwriting anymore, as it’s easily the best element of this album. Truthfully, after listening to this album, the fact that Noe toured with the aforementioned Colter Wall makes too much sense. Like Wall, Noe’s stories often feel like they’re set in a time before, though, the title track does mention online poker.

Thematically, however, Between The Country explores the specifics of rural Eastern Kentucky life in a way that’s brutally honest. Yet aside from “Letter To Madeline,” the focus is never really on Noe’s story. A key element to Noe’s writing is that, aside from using excellent imagery, he often invites the listener to view the scene with him. He’s an observer who, much like the characters in his stories, is on the brink of going insane from the hardships of this kind of life.

Furthermore, the album never delves too deep into the specifics of what makes this life hard to live, with the understated reason simply being the obvious ones – working conditions, class structure and pay. Instead, this album delves into the psychological aspects it has on its characters. Even while “Letter To Madeline” quickly establishes the scene of a bank robber from Noe’s own perspective, the intent is never malicious. Instead, he’s pulling a desperate move to save the one person he loves, and yet she’ll never know it since he was killed before he could send her the letter or money. It’s the little turnaround of the details or the empathy for the characters that captivates the listener.

Take the opener, “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb),” for example, a track where the titular character is literally a ticking time bomb who just might be willing to blow. Yet even her family can’t judge her actions, instead simply praying and hoping for things to get better for them, the town, and most importantly, her.

And praying is just about all these characters can do. It’s the focus of “Junk Town,” which, with its tender, warmer acoustics, is a bit of a brighter spot on the album, even if the optimism on display feels empty and desperate. If anything, it’s a track like this and “If Today Doesn’t Do Me In” where the hopeful wishing feels more poetic than authentic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You have to hold onto something, after all.

But it also says something that “Barbara’s Song,” a song revolving around a 1904 train crash over a bridge, carries the catchiest melody and most glistening guitar lead. You get the feeling the main character is happy to meet his end, but also can’t help but feel bad for the children on board or, of course, the titular character who has to go on alone.

But as far as the scope of the album is concerned, while it does do its part to add moments of hope or levity into the fold, it’s the moments where the album truly dives deep into its darkness that are the most compelling. “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)” finds Noe caught with the rest of the townspeople hearing about various murder cases in the community (including one of his own friends) and knowing all they can do is wonder who’s next. You can guess what a song called “Meth Head” is about, but even while the album never goes so far as to name bad people (just bad situations), it’s not afraid to also depict these people as ravenous zombies just waiting for their time to go.

And going back to the instrumentation and production for one more moment, it’s the added tiny details that make this project really shine – the punch of the guitars after the chorus of “Letter To Madeline” that manage to warp into sinister territory on the title track, the shimmering details of “Barbara’s Song” that, along with “That Kind Of Life” remind the listener that even the blues have catchy melodies, or the moody acoustic licks of “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)” – this is an album with tons of flavor to it while never overshadowing the songs themselves.

Even going back to the aforementioned vocal comparisons, while Prine could often times strive for understated humor, as could Dylan, Noe’s tone is straightforward throughout. I wouldn’t quite say his tone is reverent of the land per se, but it is respectful of the circumstances and often finds Noe singing as if he knows his dejected place in the world. Again, this is rarely ever just his story, but his plain-spoken delivery does manage to hit home at various points, particularly when he says goodbye for good to an old friend on “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)” or the title track, where he staunchly repeats throughout, “between the country, where a long life is a blessed one I’m told,” a sentiment that says so much with so little to end off this stellar project.

Between The Country is one of those rare albums where I find it hard to criticize too many elements, though it does hit a weaker point toward the middle. “That Kind Of Life” feels too disjointed in its framing of three oddball characters to really get its point across, and “Loving You” is the only track here that feels underdeveloped lyrically and instrumentally, especially in comparison with other tracks here.

But as a whole, Between The Country is one of those debut albums that simply doesn’t feel like one. Noe’s writing and perspective are top-notch and while there’s many comparisons that could be (and have been) made to Noe’s sound, the important part for any artist is to be able to transcend those influences, which Noe absolutely does. A true tour de force, Between The Country is simply one of those stunning albums that speaks for itself, and it’s easily one of the best albums of the year thus far.

(Strong 9/10)

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