This is one of those albums that somehow slipped my radar despite only being released a few weeks ago. And even though it’s a debut by a relatively unknown artist, I still feel bad that happened.
So, OK, meet Stacy Antonel. She hails from California and has a background in classic piano and jazz composition, but found her way over to Nashville after falling in love with thrift store record finds. And in a genre with an authenticity fetish, it’s no surprise that her debut album is called Always the Outsider and looks to channel the anxieties and frustrations that come with finding her own middle ground between her passions.
Granted, as far as I’m concerned, she fits in just fine, because this debut album sounds like it picks up right where artists like Lindi Ortega or Caitlin Rose left off with their earlier work: A smoky, hazy jazz-influenced country album with maybe a western-swing infused spirit, where – and this could possibly be the most “music critic” thing I say – the percussion lines are incredibly free-flowing and interesting, and the typical lounge vibe is there in spurts but also aims to be far more playful and fun as a whole. Indeed, if anything, the outsider perspective allows Antonel’s take on her sound and songwriting to be far quirkier in the details and the framing – more unique, in other words.
And I have to say, while it might be an overall acquired taste that even took me a few listens to really take to, it’s just incredibly varied and consistent in a way that’s been a treat to revisit over the past week. Granted, I do have a few small nitpicks, in that the “outsider” perspective explored here is mostly confined to relationship tracks where she’s looking on the outside in and wants so desperate to love and be loved, which is an arc I’ve heard explored plenty in independent country. And while I won’t say this cuts to the bone quite like other projects in this vein – if anything, I would have preferred to hear more tracks rely on pure storytelling like the excellent “You Can’t Trust Fate” here – there is a manic desperation here that’s hard to ignore that could be either hopeless or humorous, depending on your perspective (personally, I find her saying she’s got “a pussy in rebellion” on the short but effective “Not Looking For Love” to be quite the comical fuck-all).
And it’s those quirky details that really give this album its weight, alongside a lead performer with a theatricality to her tone that might feel broad if not for the great textured production – particularly the lush pedal steel that doesn’t carry these tracks so much as envelop them and the hints of acoustic groove at the forefront- and sharp writing. She doesn’t aim for the same brand of vintage textures you’d typically expect from this fusion of sounds, but there is something smoky and ragged about her approach, all the same. Take the uneasy shuffle carrying “Karmic Cord,” for example, where the tension is fitting for a track in which she has her doubts over ending a toxic relationship she knows she should and is afraid she’ll give in to her own recklessness before she does so. Or take the western-inspired cut of “Kicking and Screaming” that’s just sultry as hell – even if it’s a late-night hookup for the worse – balanced against the galloping, barn-burning honky-tonk of “Heartbroken Tomorrow” playing to many of the same feelings (“heartbroken tomorrow, catatonic today” – again, the writing here is great).
But that’s the thing – no matter how many bad hookups or relationships doomed to fail as her characters will cycle through here, they’re always meant to be outsiders able to walk alone if needed, like on “Absent Captain” with that terrific cool sway and excellent mandolin work. It’s why I love the moment of levity in the sweeter “I Talk When I’m Nervous,” because it’s a moment where despite maybe not being the perfect catch, she hopes the direct honesty toward a partner over her worries and anxieties can maybe be enough to start something more – not run away like always.
And, of course, while I already mentioned the outside storytelling perspective of the excellent “You Can’t Trust Fate,” I also love the closer that seems to be told more directly from her own perspective on the ‘70s-inspired “Better Late Than Never,” her observations of a rowdy honky-tonk that she plays as she tries to find her own place within it, cycling through bad career advice from drunk guys along the way. I won’t say it all connects – the space-themed “Planetary Heartache” was a bit too creatively quirky for my personal taste, and “Texas Lasts Forever” drags on way too long and feels pretty underdeveloped as a whole – but this is just such a charmingly excellent introduction to an artist I want to hear more from as a whole. I don’t think it’ll be for everyone – it’s a moody listen that doesn’t run short on momentum but can test one’s patience at points nevertheless. Still, she might consider herself an outsider to the genre for now, but with enough deserved attention toward this release, she won’t for long, and neither will fans, hopefully.
- Favorite tracks: “Kicking and Screaming,” “You Can’t Trust Fate,” “Karmic Cord,” “Heartbroken Tomorrow,” “Absent Captain,” “I Talk When I’m Nervous,” “Not Looking For Love,” “Better Late Than Never”
- Least favorite track: “Texas Lasts Forever”