This is the second part of an extended album review roundup feature. Part one, in case you missed it, featured reviews for new albums from Dierks Bentley, Lucero, and Channing Wilson. Part two features reviews for new albums from Iris DeMent, Muscadine Bloodline, and The Shootouts. I’ve yet to be blown away by a record this year, but this is an overall great roundup of albums. Onward!
Iris DeMent, Workin’ On a World
At this point, we’re lucky that Iris DeMent is still releasing new music. She’s mostly known for her string of critically acclaimed albums in the ‘90s (earning the respect of Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris along the way, at that), but every project since has been harder to come by. You get the impression that she’s interested more in having something to say rather than throwing just anything out there. And with her first album of original material in over a decade, that basically remains true. This is, as ever, heady material delivered with DeMent’s trademark plainspoken simplicity, where despite being an album about differences, struggle, and strife (you know, among other things), there’s a commonality to the way she reacts to it all.
And truthfully, that’s both what helps it land gracefully and what keeps it back from hitting more effectively. Part of it is because this is a purposefully disconnected record at its core, anchored more by its main mission statements over a more connective throughline; hell, she references gun control, police brutality, and religious hypocrisy alone just on the eight-minute-long second epic called “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas.” And if I’m looking for its sibling song in terms of emotional impact, it would be in “Warriors of Love.” But again, that plainspoken simplicity helps this feel more grounded and human – a series of honest reactions and questions posed by someone trying to figure out what the world has become over the past few decades, where if her greatest strength is lending a voice of support to those in need, she’s still going to use it. It’s what also grounds in her usual sense of empathy by never feeling preachy; she just wants to be “Workin’ On a World,” even if she likely won’t be around someday to see the results of that collective progress. It’s an album centered around living for something greater than yourself, in other words.
Really, too, that restrained, wide-angled framing is also emblematic of the album’s sound and scope. It’s a formula familiar for DeMent – a gospel underbelly with the gorgeously earthy richness needed to compliment her weathered, clear tone. Seriously, the organ here is just as deadly of a weapon as the poetry. And it’s another album where the subtleties go a long way to anchoring it in further, like the gentle piano riff that kicks in to add as much as levity as there can be on a glorious epic like “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas,” the Mark Knopfler-esque kick of “The Sacred Now,” and the sweet rollick in the piano and horns that helps lead out “Waycross, Georgia” for probably my favorite moment on the record. With that said, it’s also an album that delves into heavy topics and can sometimes reflect in the overall lethargic pacing. The lullaby-esque “Say A Good Word” comes across a bit twee, as do the other moments heavily reliant on too much echo and reverb in “Let Me Be Your Jesus” and “This Cherry Orchard” which just seem to drown in their murkiness. And the groove of “Walkin’ Daddy” is just downright clunky in its stab at blues and funk.
If anything, it’s why I said it’s an album anchored in more robust centerpieces like the title track and “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas,” and in standing with “Warriors of Love” like civil right activist John Lewis. The moments of dramatic urgency otherwise can feel a bit flighty, anchored too often in cloying platitudes like on “Let Me Be Your Jesus” or the repetitive, aimless “Walkin’ Daddy.” It’s in the unknown certainties where greatness really shines, like speaking to universal personal suffering on “The Sacred Now,” or adding fuel to the fiery urgency in “How Long.” Ultimately, the conclusions drawn here are that change has to start with us, and need to come for more than just us. All in all, then, it’s good listen, but one I’m not sure how often I’ll return to, to be honest.
- Favorite tracks: “Workin’ On a World,” “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas,” “Warriors of Love,” “Waycross, Georgia”
- Least favorite track: “Walkin’ Daddy”
Muscadine Bloodline, Teenage Dixie
Muscadline Bloodline entered my radar last year with the rough-edged Dispatch to 16th Ave., which served as a course correction off of a more polished debut in playing more to the hangdog, independent road warrior mentality through which they thrive, even if it was also a patchy, somewhat underdeveloped listen itself. Even still, it is that dogged commitment to keeping things in-house and independent that makes me respect them, especially when they can be earnestly heartfelt and also riotous and fun when they want to be. And with the lead single to their latest effort actually catching some viral attention in “Me On You,” it’s an approach that’s working well for them.
And you know, while I had my reservations about them before, I’m happy to say Teenage Dixie is a more refined effort across the board, doubling down on their ‘90s country-rock approach in sound by playing to a lot of shit-kicking, nasty grooves and anchoring them with solidly melodic hooks. If anything, compared to an undercooked predecessor, this can almost feel a bit too sprawling and overly ambitious for its own good at points, and I’m not sure it hammers out every issue I’ve had with their music thus far. But in mostly playing to their strengths, this is an overall fun listen.
A big part of that comes down to them finally leaning more on the heavier compositional muscle that’s always complemented their work best, what with their penchant for swaggering riffs and all, especially when they throw in a healthy dose of harmonica to help flesh out the sound. It’s the type of album that mostly plays things upbeat and groove-heavy and will likely kill live. Though like with their last album, I wish the production offered the space to breathe for the instrumentation or feel as heavy as it’s trying to be; this is not a record that should feel as flat as it does at points. And I get aiming for a ramshackle edge overall, but I do wish the mix offered a bit more in the way of color or unique dynamics. I mentioned the harmonica as a secret weapon earlier, but the moments it gets to cut loose are few and far between, as for the most part, this is standard guitar-and-drum music. It doesn’t help that some of the compositional melodies can start to run together at points, too.
Even still, when the hooks land as well as they do here, it’s hard to complain. And when the writing is able to also carry the bulk of the weight, that’s another plus. Sure, there’s the lazy namedropping exercise of “Pocketful of 90’s Country” that’s stupid but also pretty harmless and fun, and for as much as I like the dirtier groove of “Me On You,” it’s a(n admittedly very detailed) checklist love song and little more. But there’s also a surprising amount of maturity and even-keeled perspective here too, not just in the reflections of faded memories that aren’t coming back, but also in the storytelling detail that’s able to pull from actual Alabama heritage and spin it in a more accessible way – less textbook prose and more primal resonance, if you will.
Again, they can be heartfelt and riotously fun, though while I enjoyed hearing about the real-life smuggler running contraband out of Bayou La Batre in “Old Man Gillich” and Mobile’s blood feud between the Cochran and Pruitt families on “Shootout in Saraland” that ends explosively, I like when they can be self-aware with their own situations or lean on a more unique storytelling backbone of their own. “Inconvenience Store” may set up the power fantasy of the easy store robbery, but when the implications of hard times pushing them to extremes come to light, it adds genuine stakes to the mix. Like how on the title track, there’s no point in reminiscing on an old high school love after all, because she’s undoubtedly moved on. And even if she hasn’t, she might not want to relive those old glory days anyway. Or take “Life Itself,” where the male character doesn’t want to ruin a good friendship established by leaning into something more that might not be reciprocated. Not every moment lands effectively, and again, it does run long without necessarily feeling justified to do so, which is one reason why it can feel more consistently good than great. But this is a nice improvement across the board; I’ll take it.
- Favorite tracks: “Teenage Dixie,” “Inconvenience Store,” “Devil Died in Dixie,” “Life Itself,” “Named After Natives,” “Old Man Gillich,” “Shootout in Saraland”
- Least favorite track: “Pocketful of 90’s Country”
The Shootouts, Stampede
I wrote about the Shootouts once before, but in truth, I’m late to the punch in covering this Ohio-based classic country and rockabilly band at length. Emphasis on the former element, too, because between their newest effort being produced by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson and featuring collaborations with Benson himself alongside Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, and Raul Malo of the Mavericks, you’ve got a good window into the sound. And that’s before furthering that bedrock with phenomenally sharp guitar play across the board, not only in the fast-picked grooves and sharp melodic flourishes, but also in the liquid, lighthearted rollick that defines this album at its best.
On that note, I might as well get my big nitpick out of the way first and foremost. Lead singer Ryan Humbert’s delivery always tends to come across earnestly, but also a little oversold, especially on the sweeter moments that are laid on a bit too thick for their own good. And that general cheesiness, like with a lot of throwback bands in this vein, is also reflected in the writing. But hey, when it’s all presented in a self-aware fashion that’s able to come across as earnest and with a good amount of levity and good-spirited optimism, it wears its heart on its sleeve and owns it. I can respect that, especially when stepping forward in the face of strife is a thematic underbelly of the album. It’s never presented that seriously – hell, there’s a collaboration with Benson himself on “One Step Forward” that, naturally, is presented with an upbeat western-swing spirit – but the moments that do in the slightly melancholic liquid rollick anchoring the personal favorite “Anywhere But Here,” the introspective loss of one’s self on “Coming Home by Going Away,” and the general thankfulness anchoring “Angel’s Work” all come across sincerely.
And when it just wants to keep things loose and breezy, it’s effective at that, too. Hell, between the to-be-expected sharp kissoff of opener “Better Things to Do” alongside Marty Stuart and the smooth, ‘90s country-pop polish of the great “I’ll Never Need Anyone More” alongside Raul Malo, I’m almost left wishing they just turned this into a full-on collaborative project, especially seeing as how the second half doesn’t hold up as strongly or sharply. As it is, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had with an album thus far this year – let that stampede run wild.
- Favorite tracks: “Better Things to Do” (feat. Marty Stuart), “Anywhere But Here” (feat. Buddy Miller), “I’ll Never Need Anyone More” (feat. Raul Malo), “Run For Cover,” “Coming Home By Going Away,” “Angel’s Work”
- Least favorite track: “Must Be a Broken Heart”
5 thoughts on “Clusterpluck Album Reviews: Iris DeMent, Muscadine Bloodline, and The Shootouts”
Great reviews as always! I think if I read you correctly I’m with you that if I’m going to listen to Iris it’ll be the older stuff but bless her heart for still putting it out there. I don’t know the next two, I liked the MB clip and I feel that for The Shootouts I should like it more than I do. All those heavy hitters on the LP and the Rockabilly style is my jam but I’m not jelling on them.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Oh, I certainly enjoy DeMent’s album, but yeah, her ’90s albums I enjoy more.
That’s understandable with the Shootouts! It’s a pretty versatile record, so maybe something else will click. And hey, if not, that’s OK too!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’ve only ever heard Iris DeMent sing as a collaborator with Steve Earle on “I’m Still in Love with You” and I’m sure I’ve heard her on a few other collaborations, but I’ve never listened to her own music. I liked this album, some songs more than others, but there are some really good moments on it. I expect that this is an album that will grow on me with subsequent listens.
I generally liked Muscadine Bloodline’s album from last year (I didn’t love it all, but it was pretty good), but I could not get into this new one at all. This is likely a one-listen album for me.
I’ve heard of the Shootouts before, but never listened to them. I agree that a full album of collaborations might have been a bit more enjoyable for me (mainly because I don’t love the lead singer’s voice), but it was pretty good overall. “Anywhere But Here” is also my favourite song on this album.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yeah, the vocals are what hold me back further from the Shooutouts myself. Also, I definitely recommend any of Iris DeMent’s ’90s albums!
Cool – I’ll have to check those albums out!
LikeLiked by 1 person