Clusterpluck is an album review roundup feature meant to say more with less.
I don’t have much of a preamble for this particular review roundup. These are just a few projects that have been sitting in my backlog for some time that I wanted to cover before my midyear list and, unfortunately, didn’t. After this, and considering this brings my album review count to 50 in total for the year, I’m looking ahead to the second half of 2021. Though if there are any other projects you think I should take a listen to, I’m all ears. Always. Anyway, onward!
The Barlow, Horseshoe Lounge
Up first, a Colorado-based band with a blue-collar-based attitude in the writing and presentation that dropped an album in February I somehow missed … which is a shame, because it’s pretty damn great! I’m not surprised to hear The Barlow cover both a Chris Knight song and recruit Mike and the Moonpie’s lead singer, Mike Harmeier, for a great little closing track, especially when the Barlow’s own lead singer, Shea Boynton, has a rougher texture to his voice that reminds me a lot of Randy Rogers. This is bar-band country music in pretty much every sense of the word, and I’m not sure what to add beyond that. The content can scan as little one-dimensional at points in its road-weary exploration of a hard-living band without a sense of deeper stakes in the thematic progression, but on a pure compositional level alone I was sold, especially when the presentation can match it. Credit to this album for sounding like it would kill live and crunches hard in the album setting, with plenty of thicker, rougher electric axes driving these hardbitten melodies and hooks. This is production with real muscle to it that opens the sound and lets it breathe and roar, from the more playful, tongue-in-cheek vibes of the title track, the stomping crunch driving “Call it a Win,” and especially the faster-paced tones driving “Before You Know” that I wanted to hear more of on this record.
Of course, there’s also a comedown from that sort of high and consequences to that hard living, so they’re able to turn around and deliver a great country song with “Gallows” anchored by the slow-reeling pedal steel and organ interplay. Honestly, for as much as this does pull from some easy Red Dirt and Texas influences in, say, the Turnpike Troubadours or the aforementioned Mike and the Moonpies, the fact that they’re adamant about spinning their Colorado-based version of it could lead to something more for them. After all, I liked the infectious, ridiculously catchy-as-hell bouncier tones in the fiddle and banjo lines on “Longest Days” for a nice change of pace, and as far as tying it all together is concerned, I liked the lo-fi, campfire feel of “Part of the Band” a lot, especially when it’s meant to be more tempered and reflective in questioning if chasing that musical dream is really worth it or not. There’s definitely room to push it a little further – maybe lean in a little darker like they did on “Before You Know” and “Part of the Band” – but this is a fun record I keep coming back to, especially when I’m an easy sell for the sound. Decent 8/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Before You Know,” “The Longest Days,” “Part of the Band,” “Horseshoe Lounge,” “Call it a Win”
- Least favorite track: “Hard Lovin’”
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, A Few Stars Apart
I’ve always gotten the feeling that I should like Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real more than I really do. They started as a pretty straightforward southern-rock outfit on their earliest projects – and as I’ve noted before, what stood out to me then were the interesting percussion lines – but have taken further stabs at pure country and soul in recent years to slightly mixed results; the self-titled release from 2017 was one of my favorites of that year, but 2019’s Turn off the News (Build a Garden) left me a lot colder, and that’s mostly where I’m at with their newest release. If anything, outside of the really solid groove and hook driving “Perennial Bloom (Back to You),” this is probably their least rock-oriented album to date, instead entrenching itself further into those aforementioned country and soul influences. I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, the production here is mostly solid across the board, with plenty of warm, rattling acoustics and piano, touches of reverb, and softer percussion to recall a lot of the more intimate country tones of the ‘70s. I wouldn’t call “We’ll Be Alright” or “Hand Me a Light” highlights necessarily, but I do like their more spacious, tempered touches on a surface level.
I think where I’m not as sold is with Nelson himself, who sounds fine on a technical level, but rarely ever was an expressive presence for me to match some of those warmer sentiments. Even something darker like “Leave ‘Em Behind” feels like it’s missing the next step to really tie it all together tonally and vocally. He’s just often a fine, unconvincing, and unexciting fit for this material. But if there’s a reason this album never really grabs me, it’s because of the songwriting itself, which takes a stab at being a “pandemic” album and feels like one in a bad way, mostly notably in a few cringeworthy lines on “Perennial Bloom” that aren’t bad enough to keep me from liking it, at least. There’s plenty of tepid love songs about how he and his significant other will get through the tough times “just because,” sold best on “More Than We Can Handle,” if only for the subtle acknowledgment that things could go wrong and for the “Gentle On My Mind”-esque progression. Otherwise, “We’ll Be Alright” is decent enough, but the title track is a completely overwrought and saccharine piano ballad, the vocal on “Smile” gets completely flubbed, and there’s an out-of-place father-daughter wedding song in “Giving You Away” for … some reason? On the other hand, I really like the catchy hook of “No Reason,” and I like that there’s deeper stakes and reflection happening on “Throwin’ Away Your Love” to give this album something interesting to discuss. But to be honest, this is likely the band’s weakest album yet as a whole. Light 6/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Perennial Bloom (Back to You),” “No Reason,” “Throwin’ Away Your Love,” “More Than We Can Handle”
- Least favorite track: “A Few Stars Apart”
Allison Russell, Outside Child
This is another album that’s sat in my backlog for far too long, and coming off the Amythyst Kiah review earlier this week, setting the context for this one should be easy: Allison Russell’s solo debut apart from her work with Our Native Daughters or other outfits, but one that comes a heavy background and context explored here. Trying to get it right has been the issue for me, especially when this is being touted by many as one of the overall best releases of the year. Now, on thematic arc alone I’m sold – Russell’s re-visitation of her childhood abuse from her stepfather is a harrowing one, indeed. And I’m not sure I’ve heard an artist tap back into a dark, internal place within themselves so well and effectively since Adeem the Artist did with Cast Iron Pansexual earlier this year. And really, it’s the context and framing that lets the subtext speak louder than the actual text, in that we don’t expect the most painful parts of our childhood to stem from within; they stem from natural outside factors. Here, though, the outside is the safe haven for Russell, and it’s why I love “Montreal” so much as the opener, because it establishes early on that empty alleys and graveyards were where she could go to sleep when home wasn’t an option. And when she can’t look to adults – people we’re supposed to trust – for help, she turns to a peer who will understand on “Persephone.” Of course, exploring it from the modern perspective means that the main thematic progression is about finding forgiveness and healing, even if Russell can’t forget. And even on “Joyful Motherfuckers,” the closer where she’s still not there yet and won’t likely be for some time still, she can at least revisit and heal with her partner beside her providing the opposite vocal, and that’s a start. On “All of the Women,” which is framed as her conversation with another abused woman who doesn’t choose to let the fear define her, it’s two-pronged. Taking that next step is easy for some, but it’s easier not to, as well, and so for as much as it’s Russell’s triumphant story, it’s not just hers to tell. A complicated gut-punch, for sure.
Now, if there’s an element holding this back for me, it’d likely come through in the overall production. On one hand, I like a lot of the sparse, spacious elements employed here, especially on “Montreal” to establish that wide, wind-sweeping, meditative calm that complements the night air through the soft drum patters. The same can be said for the brighter tones of “Persephone,” especially with that warm, rattling rollick of the bass groove supported by the glistening pedal steel textures and clarinet. And it’s that last instrument that really gives this album its unique flavor and defining texture – especially when it can snake in through the darker moments of “Hy-Brasil” and “All of the Women.” With that said, I did hope for greater dynamic swell to add greater impact to these tracks beyond what the content already does. This album can definitely sound stiff and meander a few too many times – particularly in the back half on tracks like “Poison Arrow” and “Little Rebirth” that feel like they’re aiming for more texture than tone – or just lack the greater intensity to push further. The breathier tones of “4th Day Prayer” are one example, but I also really wish the vocal blending didn’t sound so muddy on “The Runner,” too. Still, between “Montreal,” “Persephone,” and “Hy-Brasil,” which is an odd moment out on the album but worked for me thanks to its darker folklore explored through the content, the highlights shine. And even if one can’t change their past or even confront those who wronged them before, it doesn’t have to define them in the present day, and to hear this album end on the note of optimism it does is as reassuring as it gets. Decent 8/10.
- Favorite tracks: “Persephone,” “Montreal,” “Hy-Brasil,” “All of the Women,” “Joyful Motherfuckers”
- Least favorite track: “Poison Arrow”