Another year, another Mike and the Moonpies album.
And considering the roll they’ve been on, I’m not about to complain. My usual complaint with bands that release new albums or EPs every year – which has only been amplified by the streaming age – is that it usually leads to diminished returns in commercial and artistic momentum. I get that it’s wonderful to constantly have something new to listen to, but there’s a beauty in missing an act and really appreciating the art in question that’s gotten lost in the modern age.
Now, Mike and the Moonpies operate differently. For one, their projects usually err on the shorter side and feel more fine-tuned and robust because of it, and they’ve done wonders over the years in trying to match the energy of their live shows on record – even in their unusual (but welcome) pivots on recent projects like Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold and the Gary Stewart tribute album from last year. If anything, they’ve gotten even better, mostly because the independent scene still gets to operate somewhat differently than its mainstream counterpart. It wasn’t the switch in sound that made the aforementioned Cheap Silver feel like such a breakthrough project for this band – it was a surprise release that strengthened their core knack for strong grooves and melodies and would serve them well when they returned to their more energetic, honky-tonk sound. This band has taken its time in trying to cultivate it, and with this new release released on a Tuesday (man, it feels like early 2015 all over again), all bets are off in the best possible way.
While One to Grow On, then, should feel like the natural extension to Steak Night at the Prairie Rose in its return to those roots, it’s also more than that. It’s another short yet even more well-crafted album that builds upon strengths established over the years and feels like the old Moonpies made new again. I have my nitpicks, mind you, and I can’t say it’s among the very best in country music I’ve heard this year. But it’s close, and if there was ever a point to jump onboard for what the band likely has in store for down the road, it’s this album.
Now, the big, obvious discussion point others have already pointed out is in the overall sound and general production, and where I feel like I have to offer a counterpoint. For one, while their last couple of projects have been detours, they weren’t complete abandonments of the core Moonpies formula. The tones are still crystal clear – if a little too clean – in the general guitar and pedal steel pickups, the organ is there to offer that low-end melodic swell, and the bass is there to supplement those grooves. And here, they’ve never been better, especially when they’re allowed to run parallel to the pedal steel lines on “Hour on the Hour” and “Whose Side You’re On” to really settle and linger. And I’ve already noticed the welcome addition of some crunchier tones in the electric guitar pickups on “Paycheck to Paycheck” and “Burn Out” to really make this blazing turbo-tonk really come alive.
And it helps that lead singer Mike Hermier is able to work with these deeper compositions and mixes to his advantage. For an album that’s mostly blue-collar in overall tone, his haggard, matter-of-fact delivery helps in establishing his more forward presence with a real wear and tear behind it, especially against the rickety percussion for something more uneasy and uncertain in “Growing Pains.” I certainly didn’t expect him to pull off the near-country-funk leanings of “The Vein” that well either, but that’s too big of a hook to deny. Actually, between his welcome belting there, “Hour on the Hour,” and “Social Drinkers,” his expressive howl really needs to be commended for how much swell and power it’s picked up over the years.
Now, I do have my nitpicks. For as much as I appreciate the variety in tone even with the straightforward approach, I do wish this band would rely on darker tones at times to lend their compositions even greater magnitude. They get there with “Social Drinkers,” which, with its minor, liquid groove anchored by the phenomenal pedal steel and bass interplay and echoes of reverb off the guitar tones to make this downward spiral all the more effective – along with an epic bridge and a key change – is the easy album highlight here. But I’m left a little colder by the squonkier touches on “Burn Out” that feel muddier but not necessarily heavier in crafting that titular burn out and smolder. And for as much as I do like “Brother” as a whole, the near-waltz cadence-like feel to it doesn’t quite feel right for it, and it’s another example of a track that could have benefited from a deeper mix like “Social Drinkers” or the pretty awesome pedal steel groove on “Whose Side You’re On” to heighten the dramatic tension.
And then there’s the content, which has essentially been sold as a concept album for the blue-collar worker, and I’m inclined to agree with that. It’s a return-to-roots project that hits upon familiar country music tropes for a familiar audience – it makes sense in a lot of ways. And for as much as that sounds too straightforward to analyze beyond that, it’s a compelling listen regardless. For one, aside from “Rainy Day,” the band eschews the usual clichés and rural pride pandering of the work itself in favor of more for what it says about the people who do it and engage with country music in particular as an escape from the grind. These are character-driven narratives connected to one another, but not necessarily meant to be taken in cohesive order.
Yes, sometimes it is pretty straightforward in taking pride in the lifestyle, like on “Paycheck to Paycheck” or “Burn Out,” but it’s mostly about resilience – having the strength to contribute to a life worth living, and with those to love and love life with, too. Of course there’s going to be a musical angle to it as well, like the on-the-head reference to Johnny Paycheck on “Paycheck to Paycheck,” the character who can’t even find solace in music when the radio plays the same heartbreak song on “Hour on the Hour,” and the character down and out because he knows he’s part of that big cliché drinking by himself in a bar on “Social Drinkers.”
And it’s the deeper insight of that last track that gives this album its heartbeat, reveling in the work and the rewards it brings but also understanding it’s hard and often lonely, too. It’s what makes “Brother” hit a little harder here, the story of two brothers separated as children and raised by separate parents now gone, with the general conceit being that they grew up to be two different people with different values instilled in them. And even despite that, one wants to find the other because … he’s all that’s left of the family, and you’ve got to hold on to something or some vestige of hope.
This album doesn’t opt for deeper storytelling like those last two tracks and “Hour on the Hour” do, and while there’s a part of me that wishes that it did, between the general weariness captured on “Growing Pains,” the fight seething underneath on “Whose Side You’re On,” or the generally seedy, tongue-in-cheek grin of “Burn Out” that suggests this character will go down swinging, it’s also an album that captures mood and atmosphere well, too. And as a paradoxical return to what works best and evolution of it as well, Mike and the Moonpies are on their A-game once again. If it’s just “one to grow on” for now, though, I can’t wait to see what’s next.
- Favorite tracks: “Social Drinkers,” “Hour on the Hour,” “Whose Side You’re On,” “Brother,” “The Vein”
- Least favorite track: “Rainy Day”