For what it is, The Marfa Tapes is an unsurprisingly fun listen … but also a surprisingly dark one.
This is one of those albums where the background speaks for itself, but not necessarily in the same way for every artist involved.
Because, really, this collaboration between Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall is a really fun surprise, but also one that makes too much sense – a joint effort between three Texan artists that are all fantastic songwriters and have never been solely confined to that regional scene. Randall is most likely the name people won’t immediately recognize, but his few solo albums are gems worth checking out, and if you’ve heard the song “Whiskey Lullaby” or pay attention to his other writing and production credits, you’ve definitely heard his name. Ingram started out as a poet in a Guy Clark vein with a little more rollicking energy thrown in to support his live shows, only for him to find his way to Nashville and kind of lose his edge along the way, and then return to Texas and start over. I never covered Midnight Motel here, but I still maintain that 2019’s Ridin’ High … again is an underrated album also worth checking out.
With Lambert, it’s a little more complicated, and I don’t think we need to trace her story back to the beginning to tell it – not when she’s on the cusp of the career resurgence from “Bluebird.” But I’ll be blunt: I wish her comeback came from The Weight of These Wings and not Wildcard, which I still maintain is a messy effort that makes for her weakest project yet. To be fair, it’s more of a production issue with Jay Joyce than it is a frustration with stylistic tendencies, but given that her material has only grown more thoughtful and mature as the years have passed, it’s a pivot I wish had been executed better.
Granted, part of me thinks she knows this, because while “Settling Down” is still her current single as of this writing, it’s been overshadowed this year alone by her collaboration with Elle King for something akin to Wildcard but way better than it. And that’s before mentioning how both she and Ashley Monroe have teased new Pistol Annies music, which, just, yes to that. And along the way we have this purposefully sparse, loose project between friends meant for them all to return to those roots once again (or entrench themselves even deeper), with no commercial aspirations in mind and only everything to gain.
On that note, then, while I did admit to having reservations over how an entire album in this vein would go down after hearing “In His Arms,” not only is this is excellent for what it is, it showcases a new strength for all artists involved that those studio outputs can’t quite capture. Now, that’s not to say that I’m a fan of the mostly tinny recording style that can take some time to get used to or that I wouldn’t have preferred studio versions to flesh these out better – I miss those steel guitar licks on “Tequila Does” and can hear how fiddle and piano would have added warmth to tracks like “Waxahachie” and “Anchor” – but one has to judge what they have and not what they want. And considering there’s some songs here that are among the best of all artists’ respective catalogs, what can I say? Great songs connect regardless of the presentation behind them, and this is a fantastic project.
For a change, though, I’d like to address the content, because while I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a connecting theme threading this album together, there is an undercurrent that reflects the recording and spirit of the project. Bringing over “Tin Man” pretty much spells it out, but for as much as this is a “buddy” project, it’s also a lonesome project meant to capture isolated yet relatable perspectives, those being the ones of restless troubadours looking to find themselves – likely not for the first time, either – and realizing they need to do that on their own. Maturation is a huge part of that, for sure, which is why even though “In His Arms” begins this album with someone trying to find an old kindred spirit despite knowing that connection won’t last almost purely by default, there’s still that longing to want to move past that and think about what’s next. In a way, playing coy with the situation strengthens “Tequila Does,” and even though “Waxahachie” is pretty on-the-nose for this project with its main theme of returning home, that’s still an important, needed anchor for this project.
And that contributes nicely to the three best songs here, all told from familiar relationship perspectives, but weighted down by that theme in the best possible way. It comes early, too, from the duet of “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow” that addresses divorce in one of the most sadly real yet respectful ways I’ve heard in a long time. And beyond me loving that it’s an actual duet – which most artists can’t seem to get right these days – it showcases that perspective in a frankly blunt yet still heartbreaking way. Both parties still foster feelings for each other, and there’s really no blame present, but it’s just not working and they have to go start their own respective next chapters to find the remedy; it happens.
It’s also why I love the subtly fantastic one-two punch of “Breaking a Heart” and “Ghost,” mostly because they still carry that same careful balance I love from “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow,” but also because of the deeper exploration offered by both tracks. The former, beyond just featuring an excellent hook, is dark and affecting in a way where the subtext and tone suggests we shouldn’t feel sympathetic for this narrator … and yet there’s real regret present in knowing his actions have hurt not only himself, but also someone else. And when “Ghost” carries that further by showcasing the other partner hanging onto those old and better memories and knowing they need to make that clean break and wall off any regrets, I don’t know if it’s just the minimalist setting in which it’s presented, but it cuts.
Granted, this is a fun album, too, and while tracks like “Homegrown Tomatoes” and “Geraldene” are pretty goofy, the banter offered and the various flubs at least add a self-awareness to this album, and I must admit I smile every time I hear them mess up on “Tequila Does.” And if one is really going to make a Texas album, it helps that there’s a pretty fun western-swing-inspired cut in “Two-Step Down to Tulsa” to go with is near the end. Still, I’d argue it’s the more thoughtful and introspective cuts that not only give this album its weight, but also help to push beyond being possibly perceived as a “gimmick.” I mean, the nods to Lambert’s own aforementioned The Weight of These Wings or Ingram’s general career arc are there in the heartbreak tracks – metatext, if you will, and in the best possible way, at that – but I also appreciated “Amazing Grace – West Texas” as a surprisingly earnest way to end the album and capture the love for the land around them. The camaraderie is the key ingredient here, but the setting matters as well in framing these lonesome stories, and sometimes there’s beauty in those wide open spaces. That’s not to say every track carries the same refinement to it, though. “We’ll Always Have the Blues” plods, lacks a defining groove for the sentiment, and doesn’t help an album like this where the pacing matters when the presentation is sparse. “Am I Right or Amarillo” is also clunky and rips off a much better Asleep at the Wheel song, and with “I Don’t Like It,” what kind of gutless sentiment is, “I love you, you’re my friend”?
Of course, that’s also a note on our vocalists involved. Ingram and Randall blend a little close together to stand out much on their respective lead tracks, but I love the way they slip into the hook of “In His Arms” to support the possible subtext of that other wandering spirit missing her too. The harmonies are … decent, but what I love more is the goofy banter captured at the end of some tracks – especially when it’s fun, rollicking, and, in most cases, like the end of “Tin Man,” all about capturing these songs well out of a simple love and respect for them. And on that note, the indisputable star here is Lambert, who’s always been a fantastic, expressive singer, but hasn’t had the opportunity to showcase that strength this well in a long time. In fact, this may be the best she’s ever sounded, if only for a simply beautiful clarity in tone and that it offers a better way for her to exercise her strong emotional range. As I discussed earlier, the versatility helps her artistic persona in being that rowdy hell-raiser, wryly charismatic presence, and serious emotive interpreter all at once, and the same can be said for her song selections here. “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow” and “Ghost” are undoubtedly two of her best performances ever.
And yes, this album does feel long, but it’s a road album meant to use that negative space to drive its atmosphere and, perhaps paradoxically, use it to add some wry humor and color to the mix. It’s an album with a specific purpose in mind that won’t be for everyone – especially mainstream country fans who aren’t used to this sound or familiar with the names beyond Lambert – but these artists knew that when they went into it and excellently met it halfway. I would say, however, that it’s better taken in as a whole, rather than through cherry picking the highlights. It’s a sound and idea that all three have reached for in the past but have never quite stuck the landing until now, and while this is one of those lightning-in-a-bottle albums not meant to be indicative of where anyone is headed next, I’ll say it again – great songs connect regardless of the medium, and this is a rare gem worth the appreciation.
- Favorite tracks: “Breaking a Heart,” “Ghost,” “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow,” “Tin Man,” “Homegrown Tomatoes”
- Least favorite track: “We’ll Always Have the Blues”