With another surprise release – this one an album of lost Gary Stewart songs – Mike and the Moonpies continue to impress.
It’s hard to say who this review is really for.
The obvious answer is Gary Stewart, who, while still criminally underrated, is the reason bands like Mike and the Moonpies exist today. As for the Moonpies, though, one did have to wonder about their next move. For obvious reasons regarding the state of the world, their collaboration with the London Symphony on Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold last year feels even more special today. But it placed them in a unique position, too. A collaboration that should have backfired gave the band their greatest set of tunes to date, instead, and some serious critical and commercial success, too.
Of course, it was just a one time deal. The band ended the album on a dour note with “London Homesick Blues” for a reason, which, even though it was a cover, still spoke volumes in the subtext about wanting to get back to their usual honky-tonk style. But if we truly delve into what made that album work so well, it goes beyond the pure collaborative aspect of it all. The strings added an elegant flourish to the band’s tunes, for sure, but the album was further bolstered by the band’s push toward something melodically intricate, eschewing some of the rougher tones of their past work (that always felt a bit too seedy anyway) in favor of something cleaner that compliments front man Mike Harmeier much better. Plus, given how the songwriting improved, too, these weren’t just tacked-on adjustments, but rather true improvements for the band.
So, with all of that in mind, then, how does the band outright pivot back to their usual style?
Well, they take a detour on their way back to the Texas dance halls to visit the ghosts of honky tonks past – that’s what. So, naturally, we now have another surprise release; this one a collection of ten lost Gary Stewart songs the band got permission from his estate to record. But though it’s an undertaking that makes more sense for the band this time around, Stewart was in a performance class all his own, meaning that, at best, this could have been a cool, but forgotten tribute, or at worst, a way to kneecap the band’s momentum.
Yet just like with their last project, Mike and the Moonpies have delivered another weirdly eccentric release that, while more familiar for them, still feels like they’re not only sharpening their skills from Cheap Silver, but also delivering a fitting tribute along the way. Let’s be blunt, though – Harmeier doesn’t match Stewart’s vibrato; his voice is a shade deeper. Still, he’s not trying to be Stewart, either, and there’s something to be said for how much of himself Harmeier is throwing into this project, vocally. Truthfully, I’ve never considered him a commanding or distinctive singer, and his attempts at fast-paced swagger on “Dance With Barbara” and bluesy force on “I’m Guilty” both feel a bit stiff and awkward here. But he’s also got the grace and poise to fit in comfortably with this material, enough to where he’s showing an entirely new side to him on “Touch Of You” and “Heart a Home” as he pushes his upper range to effective degrees.
Like Stewart, too, Harmeier carries the sort of hangdog roughness to his delivery that makes the quieter moments feel more contemplative. This is music for the starry-eyed dreamer sitting alone at a honky-tonk, knowing full well his glory days are done but still reckless enough to not go down without a fight. As such, when he’s commiserating with Mark Wystrach (of Midland) on “Smooth Shot Of Whiskey,” I may not be sold on the harmonies, but I am sold on the genuine camaraderie. And of the two “life is what you make of it” tracks with “Life’s A Game” and “That’s Life,” the dreamier tones of the latter track add a mystique that’s more alluring for this band, specifically.
That’s important to note, too, because Touch Of You does seem to pull more from Stewart’s ‘80s material than his ‘70s recordings, where the tones were a bit more polished, but surprisingly no less compelling for a performer who excelled off combining country and rock (if you don’t believe me, go check out his own “An Empty Glass” from that time period). As such, it’s a seamless transition for a band already pushing into a melodically intricate, atmospheric sound anyway. That, of course, comes with both the band and Stewart’s usual trademark additions of pedal steel and meatier guitars – “Dance With Barbara” is one of the only moments here to show off Stewart’s rocking side, and it’s a great fit for this band, too.
Not to overanalyze the lyrical content for this specific project, either, but there is something to be said for the similarities between a performer who reveled in self-deprecating humor to squelch his demons and a road dog band that continues to push themselves to their limits. There’s a love for the honky-tonk life and the music for both bands, hence why most of these songs feel like they’d fit in the band’s wheelhouse anyway. To be honest, though, even when taking “Heart a Home,” and “Smooth Shot Of Whiskey” into account, these are the fun Stewart songs in his discography.
Which isn’t the same as saying they’re lesser additions to either his or the band’s discography. Remember, Stewart wasn’t as prolific as most other artists were during this time, and it’s a miracle we even got his final string of albums. Still, I’d love to know who he had in mind to sing opposite of him on “Smooth Shot Of Whiskey,” and why “Heart a Home” never made it onto a record is beyond me. Not to say this is all among Stewart’s best work, though; “Bottom Of The Pile” feels like it’s stretching with the joke of the hook, and both the loose, boozy grooves of “Life’s A Game” and “I’m Guilty” feel a bit underweight.
Still, if Mike and the Moonpies were looking to stake their claim as fiery honky-tonkers once again, this is certainly a creative way to do it. It is a bit short, hence why it’ll have a steeper climb to be a favorite of the year for me. But when reading between the lines, Touch Of You is not only a fantastic tribute to an artist who’s long overdue for one, but also an example of a band continuing to fine-tune their skills to their advantage.
- Favorite tracks: “Heart a Home,” “Smooth Shot Of Whiskey (w/ Mark Wystrach),” “Dance With Barbara,” “Touch Of You,” “The Finished Product”
- Least favorite track: “I’m Guilty”