The last time I talked about an album from the Wilder Blue, they were known as Hill Country, and because it was the summer of (*checks notes*) 2020, I don’t think I was in the right headspace to appreciate this band’s easygoing harmonies, straightforward approach to songwriting, or their melting pot of sounds that drew comparisons to bands like the Eagles and Alabama.
Granted, one can tell that what came as a nice surprise that got critics and fans talking then now feels like an outfit that needs a little more buzz to break through, given that we have another case of a band that’s released multiple singles ahead of their latest project – and another case of the pandemic feeling like it’s delayed an act from pushing further when actually ready.
So, whether it’s a reintroduction or a long time coming depends on one’s perspective, but with the band’s second (weirdly enough) self-titled album, they’ve ironed out the kinks of their debut to form a project that’s sharper and more sure of itself. Really, the only reason I’m branding this as a review and not as a discussion is because, in essence, describing what this project does and doesn’t quite do right is fairly straightforward. If you know those aforementioned influences, you know you’re going to walk into a project that splits the difference between country, country-rock, and southern-rock, but with a bit of bluegrass too, among other sounds.
And while I can’t say the approach is the most original in the world, like with their debut, what keeps The Wilder Blue from being confined to the shadows of their influences comes through in the execution. Sure, it’s scattershot as hell at points and lacking a consistent focus – I already described “Ghost of Lincoln” as a weird melting pot of Alabama, Brad Paisley, and the Infamous Stringdusters – but not only does it own it, it never feels too flashy or stretches beyond what the band is capable of. Part of that extends to lead singer Zane Williams, who’s not a particularly stellar vocalist in terms or range or power, but has a straightforward earnestness and likability to his delivery that helps what is, on paper, straightforward material come across comfortably. But I think leaving it at that undermines the band element, too. Yes, the only time it feels like they really get to cut loose is on “Ghost of Lincoln” (“The Ol’ Guitar Picker,” too, even if that drags on a bit too long), but in terms of richly solid, warm harmonies, this finds a warm comfortable niche and stakes its claim.
And that’s the thing – the highlights are there. They’re just subtle in a way that supports the easygoing nature of the material, like how the guitars cut through to compliment those harmonies and slow-rolling groove at just the right moments on “Wave Dancer.” But in describing the aforementioned path that led to this project, we have to discuss lyrics and themes, which some fans would argue is beside the point with a band like this. And indeed: “Picket Fences” is a conventional love song that basically glides by on those harmonies, and “Okie Solider” is a song we’ve heard done to death in country music. These are straightforward songs of love and heartbreak that are pretty good without possessing the deeper details to be great. And if there’s one track that felt a bit too on-the-nose with its straightforward sweetly earnestness, it’s probably “The Birds of Youth.”
But I also think it’s in this area where fans can find the connective tissue, in that it’s an album framed by that band camaraderie and road-dog mentality that always carries that sense of adventure and execution in its presentation, but also feels road-weary in questioning the deeper meaning of that journey. It’s why I love the slow-burn bass groove of “Feelin’ the Miles.” If anything, this entire album is something of a vibe, which complements its straightforward approach, albeit in ways that may not always be for everyone. I mean, you have to really prepare yourself for the mental struggle of “The Kingsnake & The Rattler” that comes completely out of left-field late on this project in a good way, or the ghost story of “Shadows & Mississippi” where the final twist says a lot about why this particular character may struggle with that mental anguish, if you want to make that connection.
But, look, to say that this album is completely immersed within its darkness would be overselling it and be missing the true point. It’s more like an album for that self-fulfilling road trip you might go on to find inner peace or strength, which is why even if “Ghost of Lincoln” still, ultimately, feels like scattershot cosmic musings, I can’t deny there’s a sense of adventure and mystique to this album that comes together through its theme and instrumental presentation and is much more interesting that it may appear on the surface. It’s why I appreciate the little details in between, like the deeper strumming to support the anthemic catharsis of the otherwise OK inspirational message of “Build Your Wings” that works surprisingly well, or the minor swell running across “Nothin’ Like Lovin’ You” that makes the vows of an eternal bond feel lived-in and shine with a sense of urgency. I do wish we got more moments of pure storytelling akin to “Shadows & Moonlight” to really anchor this project further, but all in all, this is far from a sophomore slump – it’s the true introduction to this band.
- Favorite tracks: “The Kingsnake & The Rattler,” “Shadows & Moonlight,” “Feelin’ the Miles,” “Wave Dancer,” “Ghost of Lincoln,” “Nothin’ Like Lovin’ You,” “Build Your Wings”
- Least favorite track: “The Birds of Youth”