A female superstar out of the Texas scene (sadly) sounds like a novel idea, but next to contemporaries like Jamie Lin Wilson and Courtney Patton, Bri Bagwell has a solid string of singles and albums to her name, straddling the line between 2000s neotraditional and a more contemporary approach well for over a decade now.
And, though feeling like it’s overdue given that her last project was from 2018, when you factor in the weight of the past few years and the self-reflections that most artists have undergone in the time, it makes sense that Corazón y Cabeza is the project that leans closest to a sound and scope most uniquely hers, with the strong Spanish influence in the title and some of the sound and content. Granted, that’s bolstered more by changes in the writing and framing, as outside of the story song “Josefina” – where Bagwell plays the role of lonely drifter in Mexico trying to help a friend escape an abusive partner and, despite playing to some conventional chord progression and archetypal tropes, is pretty solid – this is mostly the same blend of country that I’d say leans closest to the late ‘80s and ‘90s in terms of tone with a touch of Texas honky tonk for good measure … and includes a straight-up punk infusion that comes in out of nowhere on “Table Manners” that sounds like the best song Miranda Lambert never cut and is just flat-out awesome.
Granted, before delving into that specific track, I will say that, while the guitars and overall tones have a lot of warm interplay and texture on this album, like with Bagwell’s past few projects, the production can feel somewhat flat and underpowered in giving these tracks more dynamic presence. In some ways it reminds me of the sleepier, more polished side of the aforementioned decades it’s trying to pull from in sound, like the underpowered riff and groove driving “Cowboy Cold” but never quite popping the way it should.
Now, there are obvious exceptions. “Table Manners” just rips from the start and sounds just as fried-out and haggard as it needs to, and I already discussed why I like the driving bite of “Free Man.” And “Happy New Year” is the sort of bitter track that frames a strung-out relationship with a lot of emotive potency in pretty much every regard. Bagwell isn’t necessarily an exceptional vocalist, but she’s a versatile emotive interpreter that has the ragged edge to pull off the bitter moments on display as well as some of the more tender love songs in “The Dust” and “Old Together.”
And, given that this is, after all, a country project, it should come as no surprise that it’s the writing that does the heavy lifting for me overall, and where I think the biggest improvements have come through. On an album mostly carried by relationship tracks that either find their characters hanging on or in danger of falling apart, it helps that Bagwell has a knack for making these scenarios feel lived-in and fleshed-out with more complex framing. Take “Sarah,” where she has to helplessly watch a friend stay in a relationship with an emotionally abusive partner hoping things will work out even despite desperately urging her to get out that … sadly, is indicative of more common situations than it should be. Or take the misspent expectations of where she thought she’d be with a partner by now on “Happy New Year” and realizing instead that it’s just a ship that’s been slowly sinking for far too long.
Now, helpless desperation is a potent framing device, but then there’s “Table Manners,” where she plays the role of happy housewife-turned-smoker who’s done putting up with her partner’s neglect and is spitting enough fire to prove it. Have I mentioned yet that I think this song is awesome? On the opposite tonal end of all of that, having partner Paul Eason faintly alongside her on the otherwise sweet “The Dust” is also a subtly nice touch, and the closing track has enough warm restraint to work in that mold, too.
But really, it’s the moments of deeper tension that I think anchor this album’s best moments. And then there’s more conventional tracks that feel a bit undercooked and get outshone by other tracks here, like the broadly sketched “Cowboy Cold” that sees an estranged wife turn to the bottle but doesn’t take it much further than that, the fairly quaint checklist-driven “Til I Can Let You Go” that tries to straddle the line between breakup and motivational track, and the more straightforward road-themed song in “Hello Highway.” All in all, though, while for me it’s just shy of true greatness as a whole, this is another solid entry from Bagwell that boasts its share of great moments and sees a noticeable improvement in the writing. It’s worth the listen.
- Favorite tracks: “Free Man,” “The Dust,” “Sarah,” “Table Manners,” “Happy New Year”
- Least favorite track: “’Til I Can Let You Go”