Quick Draw Album Reviews: 25 Trips Out West To Clear My Backlog

The short version: In the ninth edition of Quick Draw Album Reviews, I knock out a few albums in my backlog from Sierra Hull, Jeff Crosby and Lilly Hiatt, as well as cover the debut album from Gone West.

Sierra Hull, 25 Trips

  • Favorite tracks: “Escape,” “25 Trips,” “Middle Of The Woods,” “How Long,” “Poison”
  • Least favorite track: “Everybody’s Talking”
  • Rating: 9/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Jeff Crosby, Northstar

  • Favorite tracks: “Out Of My Hands,” “Laramie,” “Northstar”
  • Least favorite track: “Born To Be Lonely”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

  • Favorite tracks: “Some Kind of Drug,” “Drawl,” “Candy Lunch”
  • Least favorite track: “Little Believer”
  • Rating: 6/10
  • Buy or stream the album

Gone West, Canyons

  • Favorite tracks: “Slow Down,” “Gone West”
  • Least favorite tracks: “R&R,” “Confetti,” “Knew You”
  • Rating: 4/10
  • Buy or stream the album

The full version:

Sierra Hull, 25 Trips

I’m kicking myself for just now getting to this album. Granted, there’s usually a large gap of time in between when Sierra Hull releases albums, and judging by the press surrounding her newest album 25 Trips, it was touted as somewhat of a sequel to 2016’s Weighted Mind – which I enjoyed, even if I thought Béla Fleck’s earthier production work felt a little lacking overall. Of course, critical interpretation can (and usually should) be made independent of other projects anyway, and given that this was slated to be a heavier, more involved project from Hull overall, it’s a dive I put off for far too long.

After going through Hull’s discography, though, what I can say about 25 Trips is that, while it is an expansion of sound for her, it’s a subtle one that serves to bolster her work rather than take away from its best elements. The solos feel more complex and layered to support the content; the subtle shifts and additions made in the instrumentation feel natural to the style; and Hull is pushing herself vocally to go all in on an album slated to be an exploration of her inner psyche. If anything, it feels like the titles of her most recent projects should be swapped because of it. Oh, and it just so happens to be one of the best albums of the year so far.

Again, too, the ultimate changes really do feel subtle, which means it blends in naturally with Hull’s style as well as shows room for further refinement. I like the pounding drums that come in on the title track and the interplay they have with the mandolin, as well as the groove-heavy piano solo of “Middle Of The Woods,” but they’re moments that feel oddly abbreviated, as if it’s all meant to be a quick experiment and not something to outright anchor these tracks. Then again, it says something that my biggest complaint is just, “I wanted more.” Sure, there’s a few slower tracks in “Everybody’s Talking” and “Less” that halt the momentum rather than help it, but I’m very much on board with the overall shift in style.

Granted, this album’s main thematic arc deals with Hull’s own personal anxieties as she grows older, so it helps that the general mood of this album feels frantic, and with a dominant bluegrass palette, too. But it’s also an album where, for as great as the solos are, they’re always made to support the content. Take “How Long,” for example, where she can see her significant other dealing with his own downward spiral, and the general mood evolves into a frantic whirlwind of fiddle and mandolin interplay as she tries desperately to find ways to help, where the tempo picks up and evokes a general sense of unease by its end. Or take the title track, where the darker mandolin riffs are surprisingly effective in mimicking those clock chimes that only remind Hull of how fast time is ticking away. Even when this album does slow down, it’s not for a moment of levity, mind you. “Ceiling To The Floor” proves Hull is pretty effective at nailing a straightforward country song; conversely, “Escape” is likely Hull’s furthest foray out of bluegrass yet, backed merely by minor tones, electric mandolin and swells of reverb that add a fittingly claustrophobic feel to it all … which makes sense, given that it’s the bleakest cry for help on this album and still may be far too relatable. I’ll admit the fleeting essence of time is a common theme to center an album around, but when it’s presented with this much heart and shows Hull willing to grow with her work, it’s an evolution in perspective and sound that’s incredibly welcome. (Light to decent 9/10)

Jeff Crosby, Northstar

One element I like about the critical review process is that it’s an exercise in finding new voices and perspectives. Finding out who wrote a song or played on an album is like checking the bibliography at the end of a well-researched book – the chain extends and leads to more discoveries (or maybe I’m just remembering my senior year of college for whatever reason). I may not have been wild about the latest Reckless Kelly double album, for example, but I did enjoy “I Only See You With My Eyes Closed” – enough to feature it in my midyear report.

As it turns out, part of why that is is because of guitar player and singer/songwriter Jeff Crosby, who – along with working with all of the Braun brothers while managing his own solo career – put out an album earlier this year that slipped by my radar. It also happens that it features two songs he’d helped written for the latest Micky and the Motorcars album last year … but may also expose the album’s biggest flaws, too. For one, while Crosby has a lot of rugged character to his voice, he doesn’t offer a lot in the way of personality, and it doesn’t help that most of this material pushes him to his lower range – which feels rushed and devoid of the same warm, rollicking flavor that defines the more ragged instrumental mix of this album. It’s not like he can’t push himself, either; he rides the atmospheric melody and high of “Out Of My Hands” to pretty effective degrees, and there is a defiant lonesomeness that shines through on some of the better melodies here with “Laramie” and the title track.

But, weird as it is for the mostly country music-centric critic to say this, the album is better when it’s playing to the moodier, melodic rock side of things than it is to its country side, where the latter sound defines the back half while the former defines the front half. I do like the ragged, haggard production tone, but it often lacks the right sort of rollicking texture in the low end to counterbalance it, and somewhat makes the album feel formless because of it. As a whole, though, there’s a few good cuts here, but they also serve to show how Crosby could push himself to play to his strengths a bit better. (Strong 6/10)

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

I’ve enjoyed Lilly Hiatt’s place within the indie country circuit – her music has always had an unstable, ramshackle presentation that’s excelled off charm, and I’d argue 2017’s Trinity Lane is the best showcase of that. Still, that album was born out of a bad breakup, and thus, it wasn’t surprising to hear Hiatt want to pivot in a completely different direction for her newest album, Walking Proof. Of course, the noted push into alternative rock wasn’t so much uncharted territory for her as it was an amplification of the unsettled core beneath her music, if not in sound and style then certainly in presentation and attitude.

Unlike the latest albums from the aforementioned Hull and Crosby, though, this is an album I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for months. On one hand, I enjoy the intent behind this project and think there’s an ironic beauty in its messier focus. But for an outright rock ‘n’ roll album with a country flair, it doesn’t help that the grooves feel completely overweight and overblown, particularly on “Little Believer,” “P-Town” and “Bright Star.” To be blunt, too, Hiatt isn’t the most expressive vocalist, so it never helps that it feels like she’s fighting against the production, especially with a frailer tone that doesn’t compliment the instrumental tones all that well. Amanda Shires’ fiddle work on the title track also brings up another point: for a genre pivot, the overcompressed instrumental mix means the melodic foundation of these tracks is mostly spotty. There’s a fantastic smolder to the groove of “Some Kind Of Drug,” but outside of that I’m not really won over by a lot of the transitions here.

If anything, though, it’s the writing that’s the biggest disappointment. To be fair, there is something to admire about Hiatt’s quirkier style that’s marked all of her material for the better, and for an album with a loose thematic arc of feeling like an outsider in Nashville, I’m on board with the sentiment. I just wish there was a deeper tension to the album overall. Most of the stories told here sketch themselves out through abstract imagery or by nailing the sentiments without adding in the greater details of the bigger picture. Again, the easy highlight is “Some Kind Of Drug,” where Hiatt observes how the slow-creeping gentrification of Nashville will slowly consume its best elements. And hey, I’m down with the sentiment on “Candy Lunch,” too. But the album ends on a weird note with “Scream,” which, contrary to what the title may imply, ends abruptly and feels way too muted throughout. It’s not a bad album; again, I respect the intent and find the writing to have the greatest amount of charm of all elements here, but I wouldn’t quite call it her best work, either. (Light 6/10)

Gone West, Canyons

… why?

All right, that’s not completely fair. But it is completely out of left field. I mean, Colbie Calliat, her ex-fiancé Justin Young, Jason Reeves and his wife Nelly Joy – formerly known as Danielle Leverett of the JaneDear Girls – all teaming up together under the Gone West outfit? Look, it didn’t have the usual red flags surrounding it when non-country artists decide they’ve – in the words of Alan Jackson – gone country, but this didn’t sound like a particularly interesting matchup, either.

Judging by the group’s debut album Canyons, too, it’s not. It’s an album that somehow throws together the worst elements of Lady A (the band, that is) and Little Big Town while maintaining no unique artistic identity – and with some of the flimsiest production I’ve heard this year.

The thing is, you wouldn’t know it at first. The first two tracks on Canyons are its only decent offerings. “Gone West” isn’t the “this is who we are” kind of self-referential track one might suspect it is, but there is a decent melody to be found from the minor chord structure, especially with the handclap percussion on the chant-like hook. “Slow Down” operates similarly off of some atmospheric reverb placed in the low-end to compliment the bass groove. Basically, the more organic presence this album has, and the more it focuses on melody and groove over heavier percussion, the better it is.

Sadly, what could’ve been a breezy summer album is bogged down, instead, by droopy, sappy breakup anthems that sound more chintzier as they go along. It’s another pop-country album that has thin-sounding strums, heavy piano chords, and can’t nail down any semblance of consistency with its percussive elements, and all it does it make the melodies and grooves feel clunky and stilted, particularly on “Knew You” and “Confetti” with the God-awful accompanying millennial whoop. Without the token, bubbly banjo in the low end, this would scream as the kind of generic pop music of the 2000s one might still be able to hear at, say, Target. It also doesn’t help matters that the vocals are mostly awful. The harmonies are decent in places, and I’m happy that each member gets to shine; it’s just that it often makes no sense in relation to the content. Take “When To Say Goodbye,” for example, which is a standard breakup track that could have been an easy sell between either couple, but instead is handled by Young and Reeves. On that note, the only singer in this group who has even the slightest bit of personality and charisma is Young; Calliat is handing in her best Hillary Scott impressions for the most part (one more reason the Lady A band comparisons feel fitting), Joy is barely noticeable and Reeves carries the most painfully thin, overblown timbre of the four, and it doesn’t help that he’s handling lead vocal duties on “R&R” or “Gamblin’ Town,” the latter of which could have been decent if literally anyone else was singing it.

Safe to say, too, that the content isn’t anything worth writing home about – especially when the album is mostly littered with heartbreak anthems that quickly blend together without the deeper stakes or emotional pathos to differentiate them. I just don’t understand why, either; there’s a reckless sense of abandonment to “Slow Down” that captures the wistful, carefree sentiments this band is clearly aiming for, and I can say the same for the title track. It’s too harmless to outright hate, but given how this group dropped their debut single nearly a year ago and are just releasing this now, I can’t foresee this being the supergroup to disrupt country music. (Very light 4/10)

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