Album Review: Runaway June – ‘Blue Roses’

The short version: Even a few Music Row production tactics can’t hurt a very enjoyable debut album from Runaway June.

  • Favorite tracks: “Blue Roses,” “Trouble With This Town,” “Got Me Where I Want You,” “Buy My Own Drinks,” “We Were Rich”
  • Least favorite track: “Good, Bad, & Ugly”
  • Rating: 7/10

The long version: It took far too long for this album to come out.

Of course, that’s no fault of Runaway June, but they’ve been an interesting trio to watch over the past few years. For one, they debuted in 2016 as an all-female trio in a dull male-dominated landscape, which paints the obvious (and unfortunate) backdrop of why they’ve only just begun to gain traction now. Sure, “Lipstick” did sound out of place on the charts when it debuted seeing as how the neo-traditional revival hadn’t quite begun yet, and “Wild West” was a fairly disappointing followup single all around. But let’s also be honest – Nashville can barely support one female artist at a time, let alone three simultaneously.

And while it’s disappointing to see that “Lipstick” didn’t ultimately make the cut for their debut album, Blue Roses, it almost makes sense to reintroduce the trio of Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne to the world. Country music still suffers from the aforementioned male-to-female ratio, but sonically, mainstream country is starting to lean more toward the type of material Runaway June is releasing, with “Buy My Own Drinks” being their first top 20 hit.

And when it comes to Blue Roses, this is the kind of album where I don’t have much to say other than it’s a solidly enjoyable debut album that not only is a breath of fresh air for mainstream country music in more ways than one, but also mostly speaks for itself. The writing is a lot sharper than expected, the vocal performances are full of spunk and personality, and while the production has its issues, it manages to strike a nice balance that could signal the trio is here to stay, and we’d be better for it.

The element that’s always stood out the most from Runaway June is their knack for clever wordplay and good hooks, and that’s thankfully intact on Blue Roses. A track like “We Were Rich” plays on nostalgia and being thankful for what one has (in this case, in a similar fashion to Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic”), but the richness here doesn’t just come from appreciating the material goods this family has, but rather from having a loving family and making that the center point of the entire song. It’s a small detail like that which can help a song refrain from being borderline cheesy or maudlin by giving it a grounded sense of humanity, especially with specific details like grabbing pizza after church on Sunday and just enjoying the time spent rather than the activity itself.

Of course, the quirky personality in the writing shines mostly because of the trio themselves. Cooke’s lead vocals often have a bright energy to them, and on an album that’s as sassy and confident as this one, Mulholland and Wayne often not only contribute excellent backing performances, but also act like they’re cheering Cooke on. I already discussed this effect when I reviewed “Buy My Own Drinks,” but when the melodies are this infectious and the hooks are this good, it feels like the trio is really invested in whatever they’re selling. They’re equally adept at being the feisty members ending a turbulent relationship on “Head Over Heels” as they are letting their guard down on “Got Me Where I Want You” or “I Am Too.” I wouldn’t say they top the Dwight Yoakam cover of “Fast As You,” but considering it’s the spunky personality that really sells that song, they’re probably the only act that could come close.

But in terms of the best usage of their talent, nothing quite tops the magnificence of the title track. It’s the one track where all three seem to be sharing the lead duty, with the rich harmonies matched against warmer, atmospheric acoustics and pedal steel that takes a darker turn that one might expect for the closer of an album these days in mainstream country music, lyrically.

But on the note of instrumentation and production, if Blue Roses has any faults, it’s here. Again, it’s no fault of the trio themselves, but you can tell their team is interested in bridging the gap between courting radio airplay and letting the trio be themselves. Of course, I know which road I’d prefer them to go down, but it’s a tough balance that doesn’t always stick the landing. What’s even more frustrating is that quite a few of these songs opt for that balance within instead of dispersing it better.

For example, otherwise good tracks like “I Know The Way,” “We Were Rich,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Good, Bad & Ugly” all begin with overbearing, chintzy percussion lines before dropping out by the first chorus to introduce a better-suited mix of pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and sometimes banjo or mandolin for good measure. It sets up a jarring mix where you can tell exactly what’s going on from the first note.

Still, it doesn’t mean Blue Roses doesn’t have moments that stand out in a good way. I’ve already mentioned the title track, and the interesting, oddly unique mix of “Buy My Own Drinks” in my original review, but “Got Me Where I Want You” balances delicate, minor acoustics with liquid mandolin textures, and considering how sensual the members sound here, it sets up a very well-done ballad. “We Were Rich,” muted percussion aside, adds in nice touches of atmospheric textures and reverb to give warmth to its message, and thankfully they stuck with a crunchier electric guitar and banjo combination for the “Fast As You” cover. And I can’t stress how excellent the minor touches of banjo and mandolin sound with one of the best melodies on the entire album on “Trouble With This Town,” which also features an interesting cadence to it.

On the flip side, while no track really suffers as a whole from a few bad production tactics, “Good, Bad & Ugly” definitely comes close, with a weird, stiff guitar line opting for smokier, soulful textures and instead coming across coldly matched against the snap percussion and cheesier sentiment. The infamous snap tracks also find their way to “I Know The Way,” making it another track that doesn’t stand out as much.

Still, this might be the first time my criticisms of an album don’t extend toward the act themselves, as Runaway June put out a very enjoyable debut album with Blue Roses. I’m not sure the album has many excellent songs like the title track, but it makes up for that in its consistency. Individually, the members are fine, but together they add a bright energy to their mix while also knowing when to balance that with mature nuance. The lyricism is far more interesting, fun and unique than anything else you’ll hear on the radio these days, and while some of the songs do suffer from bad production tactics, even they can’t ruin an otherwise fun listen. The only real shame is how long it took Blue Roses to get here, but at least it finally happened. The ball is in your court, Nashville (and country radio), so please keep it rolling.

(Decent 7/10)

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