A bouncy album comprising a melting pot of folk, pop, and country certainly isn’t a bad way to start off the new year, especially for a debut album that sports some potential and promise.
Enter Brandon Ratcliff, then, a Lousiana native most notable for his musical lineage, given that his mother is Suzanne Cox, of the bluegrass group, the Cox Family. I could whip out my usual preamble about how children of musicians often have it tougher than one may think to break into the music business themselves, but in truth, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ratcliff walking into his music. For one, he’s signed to Monument Records, which can either give you shimmering pop-country goodness by way of Caitlyn Smith … or non-listenable drivel from a certain other artist on their roster. And I’ll admit that a quick scan through Ratcliff’s past catalog didn’t give me high hopes, given that his 2020 EP tended to lean heavily on the overproduced, snap-heavy side of pop-country that was generally edgeless and devoid of personality.
But after a reported three-year journey of self-discovery in finding his own sound, he’s back with a debut proper. And I’ll say this, considering he describes debut album Tale of Two Towns as a friendly handshake meant as the true introduction to his work, I believe it was a successful journey. Not to say there aren’t still some kinks to iron out – and I would say the album is shy of true greatness and a stronger core identity – but this is a solidly likable debut all around.
And I think the core element as to why is Ratcliff’s youthfully exuberant tone and perspective having to come to terms with more mature framing and the weight of being grown up – not necessarily an album about getting to that point, mind you. If anything, the self-reflection and complicated framing evident in tracks like the title track or “Grow Apart” mean he’s already bore the natural weight that comes with it. I will say, though, that the album opens with its best track and feels a bit too broadly sketched and stretched thin on where to take its ideas otherwise and can’t ever really hit its same high. I just love how he tackles a quintessential, cliché topic in country music from both perspectives, in that he can acknowledge what his town did for him in shaping who he is, even if he’s also aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to break very familiar cycles that trap them to one location forever. It’s a song that can pay reverence while also knowing that one’s roots aren’t all that define them or who they can become, or that expanding one’s world isn’t something to reject so much as the logical next step in finding who you are. It was technically released late last year, but it’s the first song of the year I really love.
And if anything, the other moments where he furthers that distance, like the depressingly familiar conceit of losing friends to time and nothing more on “Grow Apart” or the tempered breakup of “Sad Song” pulled off really effectively due to even-keeled framing, are probably where he operates best, if only for the self-reflective detail that feels lived-in and real. Granted, these are also all the tracks where I’d say the album operates best musically, too. It’s also the point where I should state that this album pulls mainly from the early 2010s folk-pop template by way of James Bay or Gavin DeGraw that can be generally lightweight and pleasant but also willowy, boring, and cloying at its worst.
And while this album doesn’t necessarily escape those tendencies from time to time – especially on tracks that feel more heavily polished in aiming for bigger dynamics and feel oddly twee as a result, like “Someone Who Believes in You” – with enough solid melodic instincts and hooks, plus a firmer country backbone anchoring some of the richer production and plucky instrumentation (the shimmering textures evident in the acoustics, banjo, and hints of fiddle now and then really are gorgeous here, especially on the more reflective cuts), Ratcliff definitely finds a firm footing here. He’s somewhat got a stereotypical “indie guy” voice, but he’s heartfelt enough to rise above it. And it’s also where some of that natural youthful exuberance in not quite letting go of childish tendencies is actually an asset, like how the light gallop and impressive melodic chops of “Always Moving On” charge on with reckless abandon to fit the theme of, well, charging on with reckless abandon quite well. Or how the light, soulful patter of “Really Ready” helps this album lean into the anxieties of newfound personal challenges that come with maturity. Even by just how optimistic the album ultimately is in embracing an uncertain future, there’s enough potent resonance here to appreciate.
It’s definitely corny in spots – particularly on tracks like “Best Thing That Never Happened” and “Where I’m Coming From” that lean on generic life advice tropes – and I would have loved to hear this album lean more on first-person narratives a bit more throughout to give it a more consistent anchoring point outside of the aforementioned few select highlights. And it’s also weird that the back half of this album is mainly comprised of acoustic interludes meant to build to a surprisingly funky but effective autobiographical closing track – unique, for sure, given that he’s reportedly going to fill out the remainder of this album with actual tracks at a later date with more time and experience under his belt, but annoying for now nonetheless. Still, for a stepping stone meant as a true introduction, this is a fun time worth seeking out – a pretty good first tale, at least.
- Favorite tracks: “Tale of Two Towns,” “Always Moving On,” “Grow Apart,” “Sad Song,” “Family Business”
- Least favorite track: “Someone Who Believes in You”