I’m aware of the irony that surrounds me being an album listener in the most single-minded music format in history. As I said in my midyear report, I get why this has been a slower year for new music. I believe acts are waiting to unleash their biggest projects until touring is fully underway again. What I’ve yet to answer is whether we’ve moved past the odd side-projects that invaded last year or if acts will continue to seek new mediums to express their art.
Now, there’s another bit of irony. For as much as pure album sales have torpedoed over the past few years as physical sales decline and streaming counts rise, I wouldn’t say the “album” format is dead. For one, there are more albums to listen to than ever before, enough to where even in a slow year like this one, it’s still easy to fall behind on everything that gets released. Two, between the MW artist not named Morgan Wade, Cody Johnson, Thomas Rhett, Eric Church, and even Trace Adkins, albums are expanding to become double or triple-length projects. Of course, aside from Church, this has less to do with artistic merit and more to do with either gaming streaming numbers or getting out material they didn’t want to see perish in the mess of 2020 (which turned out not only to be a better music year than expected, but a fairly stellar one, at that).
And three, even in 2021, I still don’t know what to make of EPs or understand why they win out over album releases that could actually lead to bigger breakthroughs. That’s not to say I’m against the concept of a shorter project – just this year alone, one of my favorite listens has been LoneHollow’s latest project. Sometimes less is more, and for acts like them without the greater swell of support behind them, sometimes that foot in the door is at least a good start. Placeholders, however, are about the greatest compliments I can give them in terms of actually establishing momentum. Whether it’s steep financial costs that won’t allow for a bigger project, a lack of label support to properly promote it, or a concept that would simply work better as a shorter project, I get why they exist and am not against them in principle.
On the other hand, I do find most of them to be lacking or leave me wanting more, and I’m happier with something in between, like, say, Mike and the Moonpies’ excellent eight-song project, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, from 2019. With just how much music gets released each week between albums and singles (oh, the singles – that’s another discussion), I find that EPs just tend to get lost in the mix.
But when they offer the first taste of music from an artist in years, sometimes they’re worth the attention. I’ve actually been looking forward to Charlie Worsham’s newest release for quite some time. Not every dude on mainstream country radio sucks, and while Worsham only has one top 20 single to his name from several years ago, it was enough to make me pay attention to his excellent debut album and follow-up project, especially with the apparent Vince Gill and Steve Wariner influences. I blame a lack of greater exposure for him on trying to break out during the bro-country era, but he’s been active behind the scenes as a writer and instrumentalist, with new music coming in bits and pieces. But an unfortunate case in point of that was hearing how his record label was only willing to fund a shorter project until possible sales and exposure led to something more.
In that case, while I do enjoy Sugarcane and am happy to hear Worsham back as a recording artist, it also suffers from the usual issues I described above: It lacks real standout moments, it’s consistently good but not quite great, and it feels like another few songs could have helped to push it at least a little further. Unlike the modern country-pop leanings of Rubberband or the more Americana-inspired production choices on The Beginning of Things, I’d say Sugarcane is a pivot back toward the former with a more apparent modern sheen and polish to it. On one hand, moments like the title track, “Half Drunk,” and “Fist Through This Town” provide some of Worsham’s strongest vocal performances and put that aforementioned Gill influence to the test in a new way. On the other hand, the material itself rarely rises above well-intended love songs, even if I do enjoy the more playful nature of “Half Drunk.” But I also mentioned once before how Worsham isn’t adept at selling genuine rage or anger, which makes “Fist Through This Town” fall a bit flatter than I’d prefer, even if it has grown on me. But it doesn’t make sense to have a song condemning Nashville alongside “For the Money,” which is likely the best song here, thanks to its ‘90s-esque melody and likable charm on the chorus – the “for the love of God, don’t do it” line, in particular – and passionate hook. It’s a familiar theme, but between the brighter tones and buoyant melody, it’s a great addition to Worsham’s discography.
It’s also the one song here to feature more punch in its production, which makes me wonder if Worsham and his team aren’t trying for a second chance at country radio with this project. Between the smoother, atmospheric tones and dreamier guitar textures on songs like the title track, “Half Drunk,” “Believe in Love,” and “Fist Through This Town” this is a quaint listen that could have featured an extra kick to it, especially on that last song. Still, Worsham is an incredibly charismatic, likable performer, and he’s enough to elevate tracks like “For the Love,” the cutesy “Half Drunk” and “Hang On to That.” It doesn’t rise to the levels of his best work, but as a placeholder for something more it’s fine, even if I do fear this won’t garner enough of an impact do so. Light 6/10 – solid, but I really want to like it more.
- Favorite tracks: “For the Love,” “Fist Through This Town,” “Hang On to That”
- Least favorite track: “Sugarcane”
Let’s now turn our attention to another curious case: Midland. Now, as a Midland defender since day one, I have to admit that even I lost interest somewhere along the way. I don’t know if it was them trying to answer their critics leery of their background and stumbling over themselves to do so (like that odd documentary project/album from earlier this year), and I don’t know if was them leaning too hard on being the “retro act” within the mainstream. Still, when it comes down to the actual music, I think that’s where the criticisms end, because in terms of warm, well-performed neotraditional country music with stellar harmonies, this act has always provided an enjoyable listen and can actually play off each other well. And I think even their staunchest critics have come to admit that over time, even if their commercial success has waned, (making the title of their latest project oddly ominous). Plus, this act is signed to Big Machine Records, of all places, and still collaborated with Mike and the Moonpies, so leave them alone!
In a way, then, The Last Resort somewhat reminded me of why I like this band, in turn providing a good use for the EP concept. In the face of diminished returns at radio, I do have to wonder what a shorter placeholder project like this means for the band in the long run, but if you know Midland, you know what to expect with this project. The harmonies are polished and breezy but really smooth and easygoing, the electric axes have the sort of gleaming sheen to them that lends nicely to the modern honky-tonk crunch of “Two to Two Step,” and the songwriting veers between wistful and seedy in a good way.
Well, almost. Wystrach’s lack of real subtlety can ironically help tracks like “Two to Two Step” come across as fun without diverting into outright debauchery in the same vein as, say, “Make a Little” or “Mr. Lonely” before. And there’s just enough hopefulness within the melancholy on the album highlight, “And Then Some,” to come across well. Plus, those hooks and melodies are as solid as ever, even if this album doesn’t differentiate much beyond breezy, mid-tempo neotraditional country. But the two duds are easily the title track, which feels a bit like a generic throwaway cut for radio that lacks the sharper, more unique bits of charm and excitement that elevate “Two to Two Step,” and then there’s “Take Her Off Your Hands,” which tries to play things cool but mostly coasts on “steal your girl” vibes that never sit well with me. Still, it all goes down smooth and is enjoyable for what it is. Light 7/10 – I just hope this band can start over with the right foot forward now.
- Favorite tracks: “And Then Some,” “Two to Two Step,” “Adios Cowboy”
- Least favorite track: “Sunrise Tells the Story”