Album Review: Midland – ‘Let It Roll’

Midland

The short version: A strong first half on ‘Let It Roll’ shows Midland sharpening their skills, but a weaker second half keeps the album just shy of greatness.

  • Favorite tracks: “Roll Away,” “Cheatin’ Songs,” “Mr. Lonely,” “Love You, Goodbye,” “Put The Hurt On Me”
  • Least favorite tracks: “Lost In The Night,” “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band”
  • Rating: 7/10

The long version: To have any opinion on the band Midland is to have a strong one.

One side of the country music community still holds the band’s feet to the fire for a lack of authenticity; meanwhile the other side can’t understand how anyone could have a problem with a mainstream country band pulling from ‘80s honky tonk in 2019. The debate certainly doesn’t atract the same attention it did two years ago, but it is one that will likely forever linger when someone brings up this band in conversation.

No, the members of Midland shouldn’t have lied about being an upstart band from Austin considering their individual backgrounds, but where one goes from there in their opinion of the band is entirely up to them. Here’s my counterpoint – Mark Wystrach, while not possessing the greatest vocal range in the world, has a warm, smooth tone to his voice that’s good for their slicker brand of old school country music. And as far as their sound is concerned, beyond just resurrecting a forgotten time period in country music, the instrumentation and production are usually good, with a lot of crisp, rollicking tones accentuating their mixes. Plus, all three members help write their own material, with Jess Carson being the primary songwriter. Yes, they work with Shane McAnally, a person whose name evokes scorn from certain sectors of the country music community, but he also works with Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, and there are no problems there. Yes, the band is signed to Big Machine Records, and putting aside that controversy for just one moment, as well as their signings of artists who, again, evoke scorn from certain country music fans, this is also a label that has produced good music here and there. The Mavericks, for example, released some of their best material in their post-radio career. And sure, that means Midland do have a more lavish production budget, once again perhaps underscoring the underdog attitude about them. But when they have players like Paul Franklin and Mickey Raphael on their records, I’m not about to complain.

Lastly, if the issue with Midland comes through in the marketing behind them, then just about every country artist, duo or group in the world is inauthentic.

Personally, though, I can very easily get behind this band. And by all accounts, they were becoming even further entrenched in their sound with the lead single to their sophomore album, “Mr. Lonely.” No, their singles outside of “Drinkin’ Problem” haven’t caught widespread attention, but it also says something about the natural groundswell of this band that they were able to release their new album without the help of a big radio single.

As for a discussion on Let It Roll, which I would have liked to have gotten to much sooner, it’s an album that mostly shows the band hunkering down on their sound while also taking a few unexpected risks in other places. But it also poses some noticeable problems across the board that their debut album didn’t have, and while Let It Roll is a good, enjoyable listen, I’d hesitate to call it great after multiple listens.

The foundation to Midland’s sound is still present – warm, thick, rollicking acoustic and electric guitars carrying the melodies, well-balanced percussion to drive the grooves, pedal steel for accent marks, and piano and organ to strengthen that overall foundation. Again, it simply sounds good, reminiscent most of the smoother honky tonk or pop country of the late 1970s or ‘80s, with hints of Moe Bandy, Dwight Yoakam and the Eagles all thrown into a metaphorical blender. Sure, it’s a familiar sound – “Mr. Lonely” even sounds like a continuation of the upbeat honky tonk of their past single, “Make A Little” – but it’s one that’s executed well with a lot of texture behind it.

But Let It Roll is also a more varied album from Midland, as a whole. This isn’t gritty outlaw country, nor does it have the same clearness to its tones of the likes of, say, George Strait or John Anderson from that same era, but the band is able to change gears pretty quickly from something like “Mr. Lonely” into smoother tracks like “Cheatin’ Songs” and “Put The Hurt On Me.”

That’s not to say they always nail the sound, however. The smoothness of the album is an asset, but it doesn’t mean the electric guitars always come through with the intended firepower, like on the title track or “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band,” the latter of which featuring a melody and key change that sounds like they’re leading into Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” which is better in theory than execution. “Gettin’ The Feel” also carries a darker lyrical sentiment to it that isn’t done justice by being performed in a typical ballad format. And while it’s nice that Wystrach gives fellow members Cameron Duddy and Carson a chance to sing a song each, “Lost In The Night” featuring Duddy brings out the worst of ‘80s country – a syrupy, glossy, gutless song that isn’t helped by the saxophone, which is about the only good part of that track.

On that note, though, part of the album’s appeal comes through in the vocal performances. Again, Wystrach is rarely tested as a singer, which is good considering his limited range, but there’s more chances taken here than expected. Surprisingly, his stabs at falsetto on “Put The Hurt On Me” are fairly effective, and his smoother, warmer tone certainly fits with the material. And considering the band members are great at constructing easy-going, infectious melodies, his strong flow as a vocalist is usually another highlight, too. Of course, there are times where his performances can feel choppy like on the verses of the title track or the bridge of “Mr. Lonely,” and there are times where he’s not as effective in his upper range like on “Gettin’ The Feel.”

But he’s also got a distinct character to his voice and has a pretty good emotive range as well. He’s just as effective being the sleazy playboy on “Mr. Lonely” as he is reflecting on young love in “Fast Hearts and Slow Towns” with a lot of earnest wistfulness. As for Duddy and Carson, though, “Lost In The Night” doesn’t have much going for it to begin with, but Duddy’s incredibly breathy, outright bad performance certainly sealed whatever goodwill might have been left with it. Carson is surprisingly effective on the closer, “Roll On,” however. He certainly doesn’t have the same instantly recognizable tone to his voice that Wystrach has, but he’s got a better knack for subtlety and a more affirming command to his tone. And when balanced out against the glistening percussion, pedal steel and acoustic combination for something a bit more grounded, this just might be the best track here.

The band’s lyrical content also has a pretty distinct character to it as well, though there are some mixed results in this regard. The overall impression one gets from Let It Roll is that the members of Midland are young, raucous and enjoying their artistic journey while also facing a few challenges along the way in the form of heartache and growing up. Certain critics have noted that the band often gives life to seedy characters, and while I would argue that’s true in some cases, it doesn’t work out in others. “Mr. Lonely,” for example, works by never framing the debauchery the title character commits in a positive light, instead leaning into it with a jubilant humor that signals the song isn’t meant to be taken seriously. “Cheatin’ By The Rules,” on the other hand, tries to justify actual cheating, and, horrible premise alone, tries to make its characters likable and relatable, yet fails.

Granted, “Mr. Lonely” also works for its fun wordplay, which crops up again on “Cheatin’ Songs” and “Every Song’s A Drinking Song,” the latter of which being a bit dry for my personal tastes, but are both still great songs. And if there’s any place where the McAnally influence is present, it’s there. But that’s also why it’s surprising to hear other songs feel a bit underdeveloped elsewhere. “Fast Hearts and Slow Towns” does show a wonderful performance from Wystrach, and the brighter textures and the prominent organ are nice touches, but it’s the same tale of young love in a small town I’ve heard done better before – both in mainstream country and by Midland themselves.

And beyond “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band” feeling like an unnecessary rehash of “Check Cashin’ Country,” what I found confusing was why the band framed it as an individual scenario and what one particular character gets out of the whole experience. You’d think they’d frame it from the band perspective and play off each other better. Sure, the excellent harmonies are honestly enough to make me not care too much, but the song comes across feeling more broadly written than it should. And if there’s any track that feels broad and generic for the band, it’s the title track, which plays to the younger, sleazier kind of bro-country complete with lines like “spill that sugar on my sheets.”

On the other hand, the band is also trying to capture a moment in time, and sometimes it’s gone in an instant. Tracks like “Love You, Goodbye” and “Roll On” do share fairly terse sentiments, but that’s the point. Even if I don’t like how readily willing the man in “Playboys” is to give up love for his passion for music after the woman lets him go and wishes him well, there’s still a mature sentiment behind knowing when to move on and when to seize new opportunities. There’s usually just enough lyrical detail to the sentiment or story to push the song along, or, at the very least, let its other elements do the heavier lifting.

And on a foundational level, Let It Roll is a very good album, though there are more noticeable weak points that hold it back from being great compared to their debut album. The melodies and hooks will certainly stick with you, but it’s also an album that, at 14 tracks, could have easily cut a few off the set list to make room for a more cohesive, stronger overall album. Still, this is certainly a refreshing listen for mainstream country music and a welcome fit to the format, despite what Midland’s harsher critics might say.

(Decent to strong 7/10)

Buy or stream the album!

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