Album Review: Gabe Lee – ‘farmland’

The short version: Minor quibbles aside, ‘farmland’ is a solid debut album from Gabe Lee.

  • Favorite tracks: “Last Country Song,” “Eveline,” “Alright Ok,” “People,” “Ol’ Smokey”
  • Least favorite track: “Lyra (Queen Of The Starlite Motel)”
  • Rating: 7/10

The long version: With the long list of names releasing debut albums or simply establishing themselves in the country music scene (or both), 2019 could be a pivotal year for the format. No one is necessarily casting aside older artists, but it’s good to know there’s a new generation of artists waiting for their chance to shine.

With that said, there’s still the challenge for artists of cutting through the clutter in the Internet age, a problem I’ve addressed numerous times in reviews on this website. It’s a combination of marketing and talent that’s ultimately going to win at the end of the day. Information on Gabe Lee may be a little too scarce, but thankfully, the latter element is well intact.

As for who Lee is, he’s a Nashville, Tennessee native, so music is obviously something he grew up with, thanks to some musically inclined parents. Coming off of my recent Ian Noe review, it’s easy to call Lee’s debut album, farmland, a project cut from the same sonic cloth. The Bob Dylan and John Prine comparisons are going to fluctuate when listening to Lee, which isn’t bad. Farmland is a lyrically rich debut album that, while featuring a few minor flaws, does a nice job of establishing Lee as an artist.

In terms of the production and lyricism, while this does have a vintage feel to it in terms of its sonics, farmland is a great example of a “less is more” approach. Alongside acoustics, there’s a lot of dobro thrown into the mix, which compliments the album’s warmer tones well. It’s not the most varied album in the world, although “Ol’ Smokey” does benefit from that underlying piano line, an instrument I’d personally love to hear incorporated more into Lee’s performances given that he’s a professional piano player. Actually, the back half of the album shows Lee branching out more with stabs of organ giving a gospel feel to “Wander No More,” and the more ragged acoustic lines giving the closer, “Happy Trails,” a bluesy edge.

Still, the instrumentation is mostly here to support Lee and the songs themselves rather than stick out in any fashion. As for Lee himself, his tone is interesting. There’s a conversational element to his delivery as if he’s playing these songs directly to you on his front porch (or some other intimate setting), and his flow is mostly solid. Still, there are times where his choppy delivery doesn’t translate as well, like on “Lyra (Queen Of The Starlite Motel)” or “Christine.”

On a technical level, his ragged delivery carries hints of his influences, so another fair critique would be for Lee to establish himself a little more as a unique artist going forward. Still, as an emotive interpreter, Lee brings his stories to life.

Lyrically, farmland is mostly solid. Lee is able to sketch vivid stories, though if I were to nitpick once again, I’d say that the broad sketches of the scene around him can sometimes come at the cost of specific details. Thematically, farmland mostly centers around main characters who are broken and battered, often because of their own bad habits.

What’s interesting about farmland is that, for as depressing as it can get, you always get the feeling that these characters could actually be more down on their luck than they actually are, which adds a noted air of optimism to it all. For example, the beautifully arranged “Eveline” with its softer acoustics, pedal steel and harmonica for more atmospheric effects isn’t afraid to cast the narrator as the bad guy. There’s a maturity to the songwriting where the narrator can often admit to their own faults, address them, and hopefully move on with those hard lessons learned and their punishments paid.

The opening track, “Alright Ok,” essentially lays out the foundation for the album, in that sense. The main character is destructive and trying to change, but it’s going to take time. What’s further interesting about farmland is its thematic progression, with Lee wildly giving into his own vices on “Lyra (Queen Of The Starlite Motel)” and paying a heavy price on “Eveline” before finding some peace and solace on “Happy Trails,” even if it’s not necessarily a happy ending (the cycle mostly repeats itself).

With that said, if I were to go back to that aforementioned nitpick, I would say that the details are a little too broad at points. For as great as “Eveline” is, for example, it never really addresses where or how the narrator went wrong to end the relationship so abruptly. Sure, the obvious reference to alcoholism is there, but it’s a theme where this constant cycle can start to run thin as the album wears on, with a track like “Christine” eventually sounding like a lesser version of that aforementioned highlight. Again, the details are there, but a heavier focus on the more gripping details could make for more compelling, differentiated songs.

The tracks on farmland mostly work best when strung together as a cohesive package, but if there’s any track besides “Eveline” that holds up well individually, it’s “Last Country Song,” – an excellent track where the framing of the hook is its strongest point and still manages to work well within the context of the album, even finding the narrator starting to turn his life around. “People” is another interesting track that seems to exist outside of the album’s scope, beginning with a weird conversation surrounding modern technology before ending on the note that, at the end of the day, people and experiences are always going to be worth more than the time spent on our devices. Again, it’s not a track that necessarily fits the album’s narrative, but it does feature the highlight of Lee’s songwriting style – the ability to put the listener in the scene with him and reflect on the situation at large with a poetic focus.

As a starting point, farmland is a very good album from Lee that showcases loads of potential. Moving forward, Lee’s biggest hurdle will be branching out vocally and lyrically. Still, an underrated element of his sound is that he’s able to captivate the listener with his conversational tone, something noticeable right away on “Alright Ok.” And between “Eveline” and “Last Country Song,” those are two good reasons to check out this project all on their own, so don’t be surprised to see Lee’s name emerge in future conversations.

(Light to decent 7/10)

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