I hate when these wind up being slightly contentious. Onward anyway, I suppose!
Myron Elkins, Factories, Farms & Methamphetamines
My initial expectation upon seeing this Dave Cobb-produced debut album with that title was that it was going to be another Appalachian-bred album to explore hard living ways. And, given my affinity for similar projects in recent years by Charles Wesley Godwin, Pony Bradshaw, and Cole Chaney, among others, I probably would have enjoyed that, even if it has gotten played out in recent years. Instead, while Myron Elkins is a former welder, he hails from Michigan, and instead of sad, acoustic-driven country-folk, we get a healthy smattering of ‘70s-inspired blues, southern-rock, and hints of soul and country-folk here and there on his debut project.
It’s definitely a healthy change of pace in that sense, then, but there’s still something about this album that feels oddly derivative of its influences in other ways, never outright bad but never really great or distinctive, either. Granted, half the battle to enjoy this album is going to come down to how you feel about Elkins’ voice, which has probably provided the biggest whiplash for me since Colter Wall’s arrival years ago, given that the same man on the cover of this project sings like Chris Stapleton doing his best Kermit the Frog impression … or vice versa. So, OK, very much not for me, I’ll admit – especially when it comes down to his enunciation – but I’m always of the opinion that other elements surrounding a work can typically help build around the voice. But that’s the other thing: Dave Cobb’s production in southern-rock-inspired works has always been hit-and-miss, and sadly, this is a case of the latter, often trapping everything in the midrange and never letting either Elkins’ voice or the gnarled guitar riffs shine brighter in the mix.
But even despite the variety of genre influences here, there’s very little color to these tones or a stronger diversity in the compositions themselves to lend to anything more than a mindless, power chord-driven album. Which, yeah, I guess even that has its moments. “Mr. Breadwinner” has a hard-charged swagger fit for the working man-inspired content, and I dug the handclap percussion driving off the more watery tones of “Ball and Chain.” But it’s also tracks like “Hands to Myself” and especially “Good Time Girl” that make me wish this album had a bit more in the way of rollick or groove to open up more – to not feel so stiff and choppy and actually operate better off of all of that roiling swagger, because while Elkins has the natural grit to his tone, he doesn’t offer much in the way of personality or charisma quite yet. And that extends even further to the content, which mostly plays to stereotypical outlaw clichés and surface-level examinations of rural life that, again, I’ve heard explored with far greater depth in recent years: “Nashville Money” examines the role of the conflicted musician set to chase his dreams at the cost of selling out but doesn’t take it much further; “Machine” … well, ditto; and while I like the more overt Skynyrd-inspired riffs driving the title track, it’s emblematic of my issues with the album as a whole – it’s reliant on surface-level drama that never coalesces into a more lived-in or distinctive point-of-view. As it is, it’s a decent debut where I can say the bulk of my issues with it are mine alone, but it still needs a bit more meat on its bones to take that next step further beyond regardless.
- Favorite tracks: “Mr. Breadwinner,” “Ball and Chain,” “Good Time Girl”
- Least favorite tracks: “Machine,” “Hands to Myself”
Margo Price, Strays
To be honest, Margo Price is one of those critical darlings where I’ve never fully understood the hype, at least on record. I’ve seen her live, and she’s fantastic in that setting, but there’s just something about her first three albums where the production never quite clicked to accentuate her thinner timbre (and furthermore, I can’t escape the issues of underweight songwriting in either capacity). She started in slightly traditional country territory, but over time she built more upon the soulful touches of that debut and pretty much the left the genre behind altogether with 2020’s That’s How Rumors Get Started. And I hate to say that’s probably flattered her better as an artist overall … but OK, with Strays, here comes another rebirth, courtesy in part of Father John Misty-affiliated producer Jonathan Wilson. And while this album doesn’t necessarily erase past issues I’ve had with Price albums, it might be the most I’ve ever enjoyed a complete album of hers, playing to a lot of dreamy, ‘70s-inspired textures that basically call to mind the Springsteen influence she was aiming for, with a healthy dose of Fleetwood Mac, too. I’d still call it decent, at best – perhaps a bit too beholden to its influences to connect further – but this is a needed refinement overall.
Granted, it is mostly just a case of great compositions doing the heavy lifting for a few striking highlights here, because in striking the right balance to embracing the weirder, psychedelia-influenced paranoia of it all (sonically and content-wise, this album feels high), this album is heavily inconsistent tonally and vocally. The former element mostly comes through in some jarringly sharp and weedy, unflattering keys that show up on tracks like “Time Machine” and “Change of Heart.” Ditto for the latter element, too, given that the vocal production can get shockingly sloppy for no apparent reason here, especially on the screeching echo of the latter track and the dicey harmonies with Sharon Van Etten for the “Radio” hook, along with another choppy, clunky collaboration in “Anytime You Call” with Lucius.
Really, aside from the genuinely excellent smolder that comes through on “Light Me Up” – mostly due to better pacing and progression that shifts between its restrained acoustics and erupting rock riffs – I’d argue this album works better when it’s playing to its more downbeat, alluring weariness. Maybe it’s because this is an album reportedly shaped by anxiety and paranoia, but while I can point to a healthy amount of tracks here reliant on the same underweight posturing that’s dragged her writing down before (along with weirdly distanced nihilism on “Radio”), there are some genuinely gripping moments of emotional self-reflection here. Many have already pointed to “County Road” as the easy highlight, and I’d have to agree – a track wrapped in a spacious, dark elegance that takes a heartbreaking look at a past friend who died young in a tragic accident, in turn saying goodbye to reckless days and old ghosts, knowing it just as easily could have been her character in that same situation. I’d say most tracks here meander and wear out their welcome by padding out their lengths, but this is one track that feels expertly paced throughout. The same can be said for the minor swell and beautiful string accompaniment accentuating “Lydia,” delivered through a stream-of-consciousness approach that sees the titular character at odds with harrowing self-doubt as she struggles to accept that she won’t be able to raise her still unborn child on her own, mostly due to her own flailing personal situation in which she’s barely able to make ends meet for herself (it was written long ago apparently, but man, if it isn’t a timely sentiment for now). And on a further note of tracks that play well to a darker mystique, I can’t help but embrace the danger in the groove-driven “Hell in the Heartland.”
Again, if it wasn’t for certain aforementioned tracks, I’d be even higher on this project, but that is a genuinely nice surprise. I’m still not completely won over on Price’s music, but with further refinements that actually play to her strengths, I could be. This is a detour that actually managed to find clarity amongst the chaos.
- Favorite tracks: “Light Me Up” (w/ Mike Campbell), “County Road,” “Hell in the Heartland,” “Lydia”
- Least favorite track: “Change of Heart”
Whitehorse, I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying
Ah, now this is a nice comedown after two potentially contentious reviews. I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying is a country pivot from long-running Canadian husband-and-wife duo Whitehorse, comprised of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, an act mostly known before for their folk and indie-rock-leaning projects. And while I know folks might be leery to hear that their newest album is a pandemic-inspired creation, it is worth noting that, for one, it doesn’t define the project, and two, that it’s because both Doucet and McClelland were able to turn to country music for inspiration and comfort during that time that this album exists at all. This is, admittedly, my introduction to the duo, but for an album playing to a lot of old-school country textures in the melodic progressions without adopting the same overtly retro pastiche that can make projects in this lane feel gimmicky, this is a pretty rock-solid listen.
If anything, however, it’s the way this album can play both directly to and against expectations that’s kept me intrigued by it. Sure, as to be expected, there are love songs here that can play well to mischievously fun tendencies like “Lock It Down,” or, conversely, feel a bit too twee, like “Bet the Farm.” But this album opens with two great breakup tracks, the second of which, “I Might Get Over This (But I Won’t Stop Loving You),” not only sports a great melodic hook, but also showcases this duo’s knack for absurd lyrical progressions that can range from being lighthearted and comical to, well, comically sad. It’s also here where I’m torn on the two artists as vocalists, though, both of whom possess their own individual strengths but don’t always play to them effectively. McClelland has a lovely clarity and booming presence to her tone that’s really sweet and inviting, but certain tracks where she takes the lead in “Sanity, TN” and “Leave Me As You Found Me” tend to drag and feel a bit oversold in their dramatic impact. Doucet, on the other hand, doesn’t always possess much in the way of charisma or charm, but his naturally detached weariness can help the sadder commentary of tracks like “I Might Get Over This” land more effectively, ironically enough.
It’s one reason I love the abject torture permeating “Division 5,” a track where his character tries to turn the police in order to track down a missing lover, where their only response is to laugh and tell him to let her go. Dark and sad, yes, but also quirky in a way that lends this album a unique charm in the overall framing. It’s why I love the same downbeat quirkiness that shades a genuine love song in “Six Feet Away,” accented mostly by those lonely, distant echoes of pedal steel, and also potent in a way that at least calls back to the heartbreaking loneliness that nearly everyone felt during the pandemic. It’s the same distanced downbeat flair that makes closing track “Scared of Each Other” so alluring for me as well. Again, like other albums featured in this roundup, consistency is probably its biggest issue, and this album can occasionally feel a bit too stretched in its overall length. But it’s also a fun pivot that feels natural to the duo.
- Favorite tracks: “I Might Get Over This (But I Won’t Stop Loving You),” “Division 5,” “Six Feet Away,” “Lock It Down,” “Scared of Each Other”
- Least favorite track: “Bet the Farm”