Charlie Marie rises above her influences and forms her own voice on ‘Ramble On.’
We’re at the point where it’s cliché to reference 2020 as an obvious reason for why certain artists didn’t release new projects, even if that year was surprisingly packed enough as it was.
But if there’s a reason to bring it back up, it’d be for Charlie Marie, who broke through with a self-titled release in 2019 that caught everyone by surprise in a great way, mostly thanks to a well-textured old-school country blend and a lead singer to carry it with a distinctly expressive vocal tone. The problem was that it was an EP, and her second self-titled one at that, which didn’t help in terms of forming a real breakthrough or standout moment for her. In other words, her full-length debut has been a long time coming, it’s already received rave reviews from the rest of the country music community, and this is one of those reviews where it’s best to just dive into the music itself.
As for my verdict, while I wouldn’t quite place Ramble On among the absolute best I’ve heard in country music this year, not only do I get why others will, I do want to stress that Ramble On is a damn good debut for Marie that delivers on those promises made. And whereas those EPs felt succinct in carving out a unique personality for an artist with a throwback sound and aesthetic, Ramble On is wonderfully developed in a way that never wastes your time. It also further cements Marie as one to watch in the coming years.
But, you know, for as much as the Patsy Cline comparisons inevitably get brought up when addressing Marie’s vocal timbre, the actual sound is more honky-tonk than it is Nashville Sound. And while it probably could have worked either way, I really do appreciate the fuller mix balance brought on by approaching the former sound, especially in the copious amount of pedal steel accents, beautifully textured piano work, and firm bass lines to anchor the overall flow. And while this album is mostly framed around failed relationships, I love the subtle nod in the metatext to a love for music, too, especially in the various extended solos of the on-the-nose-in-a-good-way opener “Soul Train” and the excellent kiss-off title track – likely my favorite cut here, honestly.
Really, it’s that love for the sound and the music in general that frames this album, from the smoky touches of keys and bass on “Lauren” that build up to that final twist excellently and give this album its fantastic emotional core. It’s the same formula that defines the kiss-off of “Kiss My Boots” that knows how to find that subtly sad balance between playing coy with an ex-significant other and wishing things could have worked out for the better between them. Sure, the actual melodies and chord progressions may be conventional for the style, but it’s a case of making it work to one’s advantage and greatly picking up the slack in other various ways.
Now, if there is a reason why this album is punching a little lower for me than I’d prefer, it probably come through in the stronger lack of punch offered by these tones. And it wasn’t until I noticed how the drums provide a more pronounced groove and drive to the excellent title track that I realized this album sometimes lacks the extra step to drive these tracks forward. Most of the material veers toward mid-tempo selections and can kind of run together at points without those moments of differentiation. I like that she aims for something more fierce for “Bad Seed,” but it lacks the darker crunch in its tones that carries something like “Tough Kitty” much more effectively. There’s also “40 Miles from Memphis,” which aims for a more soulful palette but lacks the sharper tones to carry the groove and comes across clunkily as a result.
With that said, there are plenty of moments that deviate in a good way. I like the thicker, darker bass balanced against the Spanish-flavored acoustics on “Cowboys & Indians” to capture that wild west vibe, especially when the subtext suggests her significant other’s alcoholism is what continuously leads them to playing those metaphorical wild west games. “El Paso” takes a slightly similar, yet brighter approach, and with the glistening stabs of pedal steel balanced against the acoustics coupled with that key change, it’s another beautiful moment on the album. This is a project that knows how to properly space out the mix balance and lead to some excellent little flourishes.
Of course, circling back to those aforementioned Cline comparisons, we need to address Marie herself as a vocalist. Really, she speaks for herself – a clear, expressive talent with a huge emotional range that greatly anchors this entire project. And while I would argue she’s best suited for ballads like “Lauren” and “Kiss My Boots,” if only for how beautifully stunning her performances are there, when she flips the script to play the coy hell-raiser on “Tequila & Lime” or fight back against a likely soon-to-be ex significant other on “Bad Seed” and “Tough Kitty,” she’s effective there, too. Heck, sometimes she exercise both traits in one song, like how “Heard it Through the Red Wine” is as much a condemnation of her cheating partner’s actions as it is a celebration that she can finally ditch the dude. And while I would love to hear more bite to some of her deliveries that don’t quite get there on, say, “Bad Seed,” when the compositions meet her halfway on something like “Cowboys & Indians,” it’s an excellent fit.
And while I’ve addressed the actual content at various points already, this album is pretty straightforward in its approach in a good way. Again, most of these tracks revolve around failed or failing relationships, so the standout moments come through in the details behind them. “Lauren” is just gorgeous as is, but what I like more is how accepting Marie is of her new significant other’s inability to move from a past relationship, and that while the pain is certainly noticeable on both sides, there’s no anger. It’s just something that happens. No, that anger is saved for “Heard it Through the Red Wine,” which reminds me of Mac Leaphart’s “Blame on the Bottle” in the way it pins the blame behind alcoholism on the person and the deeper lingering issues they need to address, rather than the coping mechanism itself. And I really loved how the title track was framed from a musician’s perspective of watching a fellow star stumble through the music-making process with a playboy-esque lifestyle. I mean, given how male country stars from this era acted, it’s a pretty subtly clever little nod to making sure the music outlives the legend as the main discussion point.
Like with the other elements, my main nitpicks stem from moments that don’t quite stick the landing as effectively. I get why “El Paso” has drawn all the attention with its true story and surprise twist of her significant other leaving her for another man, but beyond still pointing out how it’s fair to call a cheater a cheater, there’s no real deeper exploration of the relationship beyond that point. And though this album is super consistent and enjoyable, the album finds its best footing with its final few tracks, which shade in the actual details a little better and frame their situations with a bit more complexity underneath the surface, especially “Cowboys & Indians” and “Kiss My Boots.”
Again, though, Ramble On is the sort of tight-focused album carried by its consistency, and with several highlights to match, it’s definitely a great listen. And while the aforementioned comparisons in sound and style are there and inescapable, where Marie rises above them is in adding a more unique lyrical flavor and voice behind her material and approach. Considering this album ends on a positive note of finding new love again and leaving the past behind, it’s a good transition into Marie’s next chapter.
(Very light 8/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Ramble On Man,” “Lauren,” “Cowboys & Indians,” “Kiss My Boots,” “Heard It Through the Red Wine”
- Least favorite track: “40 Miles from Memphis”