I’m not really sure where society stands on the debate over Midland’s authenticity nowadays … although I’m even more unsure whether anyone cares either way these days. This is a band that’s gone from the surprise neotraditional-oriented outfit to notch legitimate hits at country radio to one that feels largely forgotten nowadays. And that stinks, because take away the background noise surrounding them, and the music is largely solid and has been since the band’s debut way back in 2017.
Then again, I get it. Unlike 2017, we’re in no short supply of traditionally minded acts or retro acts operating within a niche sound calling back to a specific era in country music history – especially if said era is ‘80s and ‘90s country. Even I lost interest with the band until they released their Last Resort EP last year … which has now carried over to their latest project, because record labels insist that this drip feed approach to releasing new music works nowadays, I guess.
Anyway, with the full album in mind now, my gut wants me to just call it rock-solid neotraditional country music and just run with it and enjoy it, which is honestly a good option. But it’s also hard to pin down why this isn’t clicking with me as well as the band’s previous albums did, and why it feels less unique for the outfit compared to those albums. I think part of it comes through in the newer tracks aiming for more conventional tropes in the chord and melodic progressions and lyrics and themes. This is understandable to an extent – “Sunrise Tells the Story” is yet another single of theirs to struggle at country radio, so it makes sense why this feels more straightforward and less niche in its flagrantly neotraditional approach compared to their previous projects.
But given that I’ve already covered nearly half of this project before, I will say most of those EP tracks remain the standouts, if only because they have the sweeping, breezy rollick that’s characterized the band’s best material to date and feel less stiff than a more polished cut like “Bury Me in Blue Jeans.” And it’s not hard to find the working formula that’s made this band a solidly consistent group for years: tight harmonies, breezy melodies supported by great hooks, a solid neotraditional backbone, and band members that probably operate at their best when they aren’t trying to be taken too seriously. It’s why the loose playboy feel of “Two to Two Step” combined with that great electric guitar rollick makes it probably the album highlight for me, and why even “Take Her Off Your Hands” works much better for me now than it did a year ago, because it’s got the self-awareness to know that both cowboys at war here probably aren’t really cut out for their particular love interest anyway.
And you’d think that the majority of newer tracks operating within that same vein would hit just as well, but I think it’s just the result of playing too close to conventional song topics without the seedier framing or details that could make tracks like “Mr. Lonely,” “Cheatin’ Songs,” or “Two to Two Step” feel unique to their style. This is a band that’s always at their best when they’re playing coy and operating as the self-aware bar-band troublemakers they are, which is why tracks like the title track, the Jon Pardi duet in “Longneck Way to Go” and “Paycheck to Paycheck” feel oddly … I don’t know, sedate and more distanced in comparison, especially when lead singer Mark Wystrach has a tendency to sound stiff on tracks that require a more immediate presence. And “Paycheck to Paycheck” is not nearly as much fun as the Mike and the Moonpies song of the same name – I hate to make that obvious comparison, but it kind of invites it.
With that said, I do like that this is a band operating more as … well, just that, a band. Jess Carson gets to take over “Life Ain’t Fair,” with that great tempered acoustic rollick playing off the lightweight accordion and mandolin to make for another highlight, especially when his more lived-in delivery complements a track about how we’re all in the same boat remarkably well; it sticks out, but in a good way. And then there’s “King of Saturday Night” … and dear God, just keep Cameron Duddy away from the microphone. He’s breathy, he’s not nearly as cool as he’s trying to be here, and the song is a painfully weak attempt at cutting loose – especially when “Two to Two Step” nails this general theme so much better on this record. But really, between those EP tracks and “Life Ain’t Fair,” this is still solid enough, but it also feels like an attempt at padding out an EP with safe filler that will put them back in radio’s good graces over something a bit more uniquely definable to the Midland experience. And even that still provides a solidly enjoyable listen – just not quite a great one.
- Favorite tracks: “Life Ain’t Fair,” “Two to Two Step,” “And Then Some,” “Adios Cowboy,” “Take Her Off Your Hands”
- Least favorite track: “King of Saturday Night”