The short version: Mike and the Moonpies pivot into a different lane for ‘Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold,’ and the result is not only a great project, but also their best album to date.
- Favorite tracks: “If You Want A Fool Around,” “Danger,” “You Look Good In Neon,” “Young In Love,” “Fast As Lightning”
- Least favorite track: “Miss Fortune”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: Alright, I’ll give into the cliché and say that this was certainly a surprise.
Oddly enough, though, it really feels like we should have seen the signs with this situation. After all, front man Mike Harmeier of Mike and the Moonpies expressed interest in other previous interviews about doing a possible a Frank Sinatra-inspired project, and the release of “You Look Good In Neon” a few months back really should have given it away, yet we all thought it was just a standalone track.
Yet the surprise worked, with their album release last Friday, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, earning just as much attention as Tyler Childers’s Country Squire, released with an obvious amount of higher anticipation. And not to say this in the wrong way, but if there’s a band you don’t really expect a surprise from, it’s Mike and the Moonpies.
Granted, that’s not a bad thing. After all, they’re a band that’s specialized in creating upbeat honky tonk music without really focusing on the “artist” aspect of it all. That’s not to say their previous albums weren’t good, but it was fairly obvious their real asset was their live show, meaning that “good” was usually the ceiling for those projects.
But here it is – an album recorded last year at Abbey Road Studios in London with the London Symphony Orchestra (and their usual producer, Adam Odor) that signaled something very different for the band. The only sad part about Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold is it feels more like a detour rather than an expansion of sound, because for all intents and purposes, this is a genuinely great project from the band that deserves every bit of praise it receives.
Yet when we examine what’s actually changed about this release compared to past projects from the band, the answer goes beyond simply adding strings or other orchestral flourishes into the mix. Yes, that does factor into it all, but even in other areas from the writing to Harmeier’s vocal performances, this is an album that shows the band improving in a general sense, and detour or not, that’s something that will carry over into future projects, fortunately.
Also, to say this isn’t a true Moonpies album would also be selling the band short, as while there are a few obvious moments where the orchestral arrangements stick out (but never in a bad way), this is still the same brand of high-octane honky tonk music fans have come to love from the band, just contextualized in a new manner.
After all, “You Look Good In Neon” was looked upon as a solid, possible standalone single from the band, yet it’s got the strings right there for low-end support. Sure, the opening notes of the title track might make the listener question if they’re listening to the correct album, but more often than not, the mixes never feel overbearing, instead adding some needed melodic support to several tracks here. Again, one past criticism of the band’s projects is that, given that the magic happened in the live show, it always seemed like certain tracks were missing a few elements to come together better.
But that’s not the case here, especially when “You Look Good In Neon” and “If You Want A Fool Around” are some of their most tightly composed tracks yet, whether it be in the aforementioned string support, well-mixed basslines, or, in the case of “Trouble,” a grimier, sinister-sounding electric guitar to drive the track out. Sure, a fair criticism for this project is that, between certain tracks which go all in on this new sound like the cover of “Young In Love” matched against the more natural “Fast As Lightning” driven by Zach Moulton’s pedal steel, the project can lack sonic cohesion. But this isn’t meant to show two different sides of the band, but rather how they’re uniting the old with the new to stamp an evolution of their sound, and I say that even as someone who normally dislikes using the word, “evolution.”
But as for why this album feels mostly like a detour, we’d have to dig into the lyrics and themes. Again, to only cite the change in sound with this album as an improvement would be doing a disservice to the band, because this album definitely shows them stepping up their game in this department as well. A song like “If You Want A Fool Around” comes just this close to being sleazy, but never crosses that line due to some excellent framing – the male character in question never paints himself as anything other than a desperate fool and knows his love interest has moved on, yet tries for that last connection nonetheless. It’s a track that shows Harmeier improving as a vocalist as well in terms of his emotive presence, as he’s someone who honestly never showcased much charisma before. Yet on that track, he’s genuinely moving as the sad sap you want to root for, even if it’s obvious that won’t work anyway.
But it’s that odd feeling of being stuck in the middle that stands as the core of this album. Most of the songs find Harmeier and the band stopping to catch their breath to ponder their next move, whether it’s blatantly obvious in the almost self-referential title track or coated in the metaphor of a one-night hookup in “You Look Good In Neon.” Nothing lasts here, in other words, which is what makes the Aaron Sinclair cover of “Young In Love” carry so much weight with its talk of finality and loss of childhood innocence. Of course, it’s fitting that it comes after “Danger,” which, sure, plays to broader, more fictional tropes than one would expect for a father-son ballad like this, but feels sinister and righteous by the time it hits its outro mark.
And then there’s the more specific examples of where the album heads with its two final tracks, the first track, “Fast As Lightning,” being a literal whirlwind as they explore their constant touring schedule. But it’s the Gary P. Nunn cover of “London Homesick Blues” that’s most interesting, though perhaps a bit more mean-spirited in this context, especially with how downbeat it’s played (it’s also odd to criticize London when you have the orchestra right there, but again, that’s a small nitpick). Still, it says something that the album ends on the note of the band enjoying their time in London, yet also anxious to get back to Texas, even despite the aforementioned craziness of “Fast As Lightning” that will come with it.
Still, while there’s even more room to expand and develop off this template, Mike and the Moonpies have truly crafted a genuinely great project with Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold. Aside from “Miss Fortune,” which feels a bit too slick and doesn’t capture the same dynamic punch other tracks have, there’s not a weak song in the bunch. Even despite this album only featuring eight songs, for one, it feels like a full album, thankfully emphasizing quality over quantity. Second, it also allows enough room for the band to expand while sticking true to certain elements of their sound. Again, Harmeier has improved vastly as a vocalist, giving tracks like “Young In Love,” “If You Want A Fool Around” and even “London Homesick Blues” the sordid character sketches they deserve. And when the writing finds the band approaching topics in different ways or giving them the instrumental crunch they might not have before like on “Danger,” this is an album that shows genuine improvement across the board. Even if they eventually mine the same well as, say, Mockingbird or Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, there’s improved elements here that will carry over to that inevitable next project. But for now, if you didn’t get enough of a country music fix as it was last Friday, strap in, because not only did Mike and the Moonpies deliver something genuinely great in Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, they also released their best album to date.
Mike and the Moonpies are Mike Harmeier (vocals), Zach Moulton (pedal steel), Caitlin Rutherford (guitarist), Omar Oyoque (bass), John Carbone (keyboard), Kyle Ponder (drummer) and Adam Odor (producer).