Album Review: Lillie Mae – ‘Other Girls’

The short version: Lillie Mae’s ‘Other Girls’ is an experiment that doesn’t go far enough in its execution.

  • Favorite tracks: “You’ve Got Other Girls For That,” “I Came For The Band (For Show),” “Some Gamble,” “Whole Blue Heart”
  • Least favorite track: “Love Dilly Love”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Recommend? If you’re into the experimental side of alt-country, or were a fan of Mae’s debut album, sure, though this is definitely a different album. Otherwise, it’s at least worth a listen to see what you think, though I don’t expect this to be for everyone.

The long version: It’s weird to think how two rockers have made a recent impact on country music.

I’m not talking about those artists making country music, however, but rather operating record labels that foster country artists. Already this year, we’ve heard debut albums from the likes of Yola and Dee White through Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label.

Though, while Yola and White have the kind of vintage, soulful, countrypolitan sound akin to, say, Auerbach’s work outside of the Black Keys, the same synergy hasn’t quite been found with Jack White’s Third Man Records as well. Artists like Margo Price and Joshua Hedley are fine in their own right, though they make the kind of vintage traditional country (that, admittedly, is a bit stuffy) that doesn’t quite fit with, say, the sounds of Van Lear Rose. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, we really haven’t heard an artist capture the same experimental weirdness as what you’d expect from White’s label in the country music sector.

On that note, enter Lillie Mae, a fiddler known for touring with her family, including being part of the short-lived group Jypsi, in 2008, before she found her way over to the aforementioned record label. And despite the obvious country influences, 2017’s Forever And Then Some really stood out most for its ragged edges, particularly in the sharper guitar work and melodies. Sure, it had its traditional edges, but it had a modern punch to it.

As such, when news broke that she was recording with Dave Cobb for her next album, Other Girls, I’ll admit to fostering some concerns. Mae is an excellent instrumentalist, but with Cobb known for softening the edges of most albums he produces, there was some concern that this album might not stick out as much.

Oddly, though, Other Girls doesn’t sound like a Cobb project, but that’s not a compliment, sadly. Other Girls is a different project for Mae, entirely, and while I applaud Mae branching out, the album goes in too many directions and doesn’t stick the landing that well, overall.

The biggest change, if you couldn’t guess by now, comes through in the instrumentation and production, whereas instead of the ragged country-rock of Forever And Then Some, Other Girls feels more theatrical in its approach. That, in and of itself, is a good thing; however, this album also feels unfinished at points, with songs like “I Came For The Band (For Show)” and “How?” begging for more low-end support than they actually get.

But again, Other Girls is a more experimental album for Mae, with even sharper guitar work, booming percussion and drums, atmospheric textures, and sidesteps within the songs themselves which end differently than they begin. And this leads to several different styles on display, including “Crisp & Cold” which cribs the drum pattern of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” of all things, balanced against the lighter, almost countrypolitan vibes of “How?” or “Didn’t I.” If anything, I’d have to question if Cobb didn’t change his name to Jay Joyce without us hearing about it.

Now, this does come with the caveat that Other Girls also showcases Mae’s natural talents a fair bit better in certain spots than before. Vocally, she’s a dead ringer for Kacey Musgraves at points, with a cadence certainly suited for more traditional-leaning material like on “Whole Blue Heart.” But she’s also got a bite to her tone that I wish we heard more of here, because while “How?” and “Didn’t I” are impressive from a technical standpoint, there’s very little stakes here to draw the listener in, otherwise. There’s certainly an impressive, organic power to her vocals, though, that plays to a subtler range quite well, and pushing her to the front of the mix was a good choice.

But the problem with this album is that the songs often feel underdeveloped, with “Crisp & Cold” feeling way too short while “How?,” “Golden Year,” and “Some Gamble” only get to their most interesting moments by their ending notes. Granted, the abundance of minor, darker tones on display does give certain tracks more of a ragged edge to them, particularly the smoky textures of “Some Gamble.” “Terlingua Girl” is also a rare exception on this album that feels like it comes full circle in a fitting way.

And yes, the fiddle and mandolin do show up here and there for underlying melodic support, but not as often as they should. And there’s times where the experiment is too much for its own good, like on “Love Dilly Love” which is a messy, disappointing way to end the album.

And when it comes to the lyrical content here, there’s not much to work with, either. Mae’s lyrical structure is more poetic this time around, with the ultimate meanings of these songs being conduced from disconnected metaphors more than on-the-nose answers. Again, it can’t help but feel like another step backward. There’s a few stellar moments in this department, however. The title track finds Mae being second fiddle to a man, yet she’s ultimately fine with it, if only because she knows he still needs her, and, therefore, has a degree of control over him. And it’s this kind of ironically sinister territory that finds Mae in her best role, taking pleasure in knowing how weak and small this man actually is. It’s sad, but there’s also a cathartic justice to it.

There’s also “Some Gamble,” a rare moment where the metaphorical cadence works well to spell out a tale of seasonal depression that cuts deeper when you piece the entire puzzle together. And “I Came For The Band (For Show)” is a hilariously biting portrayal of a woman trying to enjoy herself at a concert before some guy comes up to flirt with her, only for her to tell him off because she came to enjoy music.

Otherwise, Other Girls feels like an album built toward crafting atmosphere more than having any thematic consistency. Most of these tracks speak somewhat to heartbreak or the bitter aftermath of a relationship, but most of these songs also feel like they could afford an extra verse to tie everything together. Unless you knew the backstory of how Mae wrote a song after a stay in a monastery in Wisconsin to hone her work on “A Golden Year,” it’s certainly an example of that, as is “Whole Blue Heart.”

Much of Other Girls feels experimental simply for the sake of doing so, with the ultimate result feeling unfinished and lacking. Mae certainly adds an air of elegance to the performances here, but between haphazard writing and inconsistent instrumentation and production, this is an album that doesn’t connect as well as it should.

(Decent 6/10)

Buy or stream the album.

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