The short version: A trip out west inspires Michaela Anne to hone her craft, delivering an album that plays much better to her strengths.
- Favorite tracks: “Desert Dove,” “One Heart,” “Somebody New,” “By Our Design,” “Two Fools”
- Least favorite track: “Tattered, Torn and Blue (And Crazy)”
- Rating: 8/10
The long version: When pondering the main headquarters of the country music industry, have you ever asked yourself, “why Nashville?”
After all, by the end of World War II, a number of cities held the promise of becoming enduring country music centers. The answer is worth a separate discussion in another piece, but to give the short answer, Nashville emerged through radio, an innovative piece of technology for its time. The Grand Ole Opry’s parent station, WSM, for example, was a 50,000-watt, clear-channel giant that blanketed the nation, and when coupled with Nashville’s central location and a variety of radio shows, it quickly stole star hillbilly singers from rival stations. And, as a result, recording executives soon made their way over to record Opry talent, using several studios and facilities that sprang up from Nashville’s increased prominence.
And, as much as we, the fans, like to imagine the city as a place where starry-eyed country artists go to make their dreams come true, it’s still, at the end of the day, a business town. That’s not to say creativity doesn’t spring up; there is still a heart to the town, after all. It’s just that most of the prominent names within the town are looking to make money over art, which, like it or not, is fine.
Even without that history, though, anyone today can see that country music springs from a variety of places, from Bakersfield, California on down to a good chunk of Texas and into international territory. Singer-songwriter Michaela Anne probably knows that better than most, a military kid who grew up bouncing around homes in Washington, California, Virginia, Michigan and Italy. Ironically, while a trip to Nashville inspired 2016’s Bright Lights and the Fame, a trip to San Clemente, California inspired her newest album, Desert Dove.
Now, I’ll admit I’ve found past Anne albums to be a bit lacking in production quality, and while she’s got a tremendous voice, a lot of her early work finds her working oddly in her lower range, which never really made her songs stand out as much as they could. But, with co-producers Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich behind the wheel of her latest project, her debut through Yep Roc records, Desert Dove is an immediate step-up from past Anne projects in nearly every way.
Given that Anne worked in California for this album’s release, the sonic palette makes sense, with plenty of glistening electric and acoustic guitars driving the melodies while rich pedal steel and strings are added for accent marks. A fellow critic noted a comparison to Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour from last year, and the comparison makes sense. The focus is on melodies and grooves, though Desert Dove adopts more naturally fitting tones given the landscape, with plenty of reverb for added atmosphere and warmth.
Truthfully, too, it compliments Anne’s vocals better than ever before, with the vocal production placing her at the front of the mix while she soars off the smoother melodies and hooks. The reverb added to her voice is certainly noticeable, but it never detracts from her smoother deliveries, instead letting her carry out the hooks of tracks like “One Heart,” the title track and “Somebody New” with added, notable presence.
Going back to the production, however, in a just world, this would fit right onto Nashville radio playlists, if only because this album knows how to cultivate atmosphere and be insanely catchy while also being smart and well-crafted. Sure, something like “Run Away With Me” isn’t trying to be anything more than a direct love song, but with the bubbly electric guitar groove, it’s got enough rollicking texture to work as a moment of levity. On the other hand, tracks like the title track and “One Heart” work off minor keys and ghostly pedal steel for atmospheres that build to something more, with the latter track building up to that stellar hook while the former track opts for a hazier atmosphere with the burnished electric guitar and organ to create a stronger sense of mystique.
Also, as a testament to how strong the foundation of the album is, melodically, tracks like “Two Fools” and “If I Wanted Your Opinion” toward the back-half of the record work as straightforward country songs without sounding out of place, with the former track opting for a lonely barroom atmosphere while the latter is a hard-charged honky tonk number.
And, with plenty of well-mixed bass lines and sharp drums to keep the rollicking textures moving along, the fantastic low-end support means there’s hardly a moment on Desert Dove that doesn’t feel huge or grand in scope. “Child Of The Wind,” though, does feature an ill-fitting buzzy, static-driven electric guitar line that doesn’t quite blend in well with the song, and while the lazier, calmer tones of the strings on “Tattered, Torn and Blue (And Crazy)” do sound nice, they also seem to undermine its darker lyrical content.
On that note, in terms of its actual content, Desert Dove is decidedly straightforward in its framing and approach, a refreshing turn of events, to be honest. Granted, sometimes I wish those grittier details did fluctuate, like on “Tattered, Torn and Blue (And Crazy),” if only to flesh out a better picture; but sometimes the approach works in favor of the songs. On “Somebody New,” for example, while the focus is centered around the narrator having to break the hard truth to her lover that she’s found someone else she loves more, it’s never meant to cast blame or judgment toward either side. Instead, by not fleshing out too much of a backstory, the focus shifts toward a very real sentiment that does happen, and in this case, the best thing to do is be honest about what should happen moving forward instead of stringing someone along and making both characters unhappy.
And if there’s any running thematic core to Desert Dove, it’s questioning what love really is, whether through her own actions or from afar for someone else through metaphors and symbolism on the title track. Yet while she calls into question her lover’s intentions on “I’m Not The Fire” or “One Heart,” she’s not about to skip out on questioning her implications either. She’s on equal footing with the miserable guy in the bar on “Two Fools” and can see this spark won’t last, and on “Child Of The Wind,” she knows her wandering spirit ultimately may hold her back from what she’s trying to find.
In that sense, it’s almost ironic that the album opens with “By Our Design,” a celebration of two people living together and starting something more, yet also one that acknowledges a sense of normalcy won’t ever come to them due to assumed societal issues, hence why they find solace in the tinier elements of life most people take for granted. And while she spends her time on this album searching for happiness from herself and love in general, she knows she has to make the changes she wants to see, hence why she’ll be just fine without any of us on “If I Wanted Your Opinion.” And though “Be Easy” ends on a positive note of hope for her, you and I, the live vocal pickup and little cracks and blemishes evident in the recording do end the album on a bit of a weaker note, at least for me.
But if there’s an album that shows artistic improvement across the board, it’s Desert Dove by Michaela Anne. The hooks and melodies are gorgeously stunning and textured, Anne sounds more natural, vocally, and the lyrics, while not inherently complex, nonetheless often work in this album’s favor. Like with a similar album released recently by Dori Freeman, called Every Single Star, Desert Dove is the kind of subtly great project that might not immediately jump out at you at first, but it is the kind of project that’s too melodically pleasing to be looked upon as anything other than Anne’s finest project yet.