Del Barber, Almanac
I feel like I’ve seen a respectable amount of buzz for this album, which comes from a Winnipeg-based talent who, because of his roots and general affiliations, has drawn comparisons to artists like Corb Lund and Colter Wall. And in running through this discography … well, there’s certainly that wide-open, barren feel to the material in his simple reflections of prairie life. But the overall sound feels rooted more in simple acoustic folk above all else, which does add a certain charm and greater accessibility that can be missing from this general brand of material at times.
And with Del Barber’s newest album Almanac, that largely remains the case, a more settled, family-oriented collection that sports a lot of rollick and is generally likable, even if it can also scan as a tad schmaltzy overall. It’s very much a reflective, post-pandemic project from a musician who’s been active for over a decade and is still chasing that dream, all with a hint of self-deprecation and sly bemusement over how it’s all turned out (“Something to Say,” “One Good Year”), even if an overall sense of thankfulness still shines first and foremost (“Still Got You,” “Maria”). Heck, off the warmer acoustics accented mainly by touches of pedal steel and mandolin, it’s a very comfortable project to enjoy as a starting point for Barber’s work, even despite the older perspective on display.
With that said, groove-wise it can also feel a bit stiff and jerky at times, always coming across as pleasant but rarely exceptional. And again, part of that feels intentional in the notable “everyman” quality of the material, where he’s just an overall normal, average family guy looking to make ends meet like many out there. It’s also why, for me, the big highlight is “I Told You So,” told from the perspective of an older man who’s recently lost his partner and is working through his grief as best as possible, even if it’s only made harder by even little moments pushing those memories and that pain back to the forefront. There is a wide-angled, empathetic viewpoint to this album I do appreciate in its character sketches. “I Told You So” is a more tempered cut, too, which is a mood that also plays well toward a sad character portrait like “Jared” but less so on “Me and Jim,” a song about two friends who share an affinity for the gym that honestly feels somewhat hokey at points.
And again, that generally schmaltzy feel is probably what keeps me from loving tracks like “Still Got You” and “Flash in the Pan” more. When it comes to vague political statements made on “Even God Almighty” and “Spade,” too, this album can also feel a bit edgeless. At least for me, likable, humorous cuts like “Something to Say” and “One Good Year,” the heartbreaking “I Told You So,” and genuinely deeper and more vulnerable odes to loved ones on “Bulls” and “Maria” are the highlights. And I also enjoyed hearing him actually shift into distinct Corb Lund-esque territory with the rambling man-esque, cowboy shuffle of closer “On My Way Out the Door.” It lacks a greater pull at times, but it’s a solidly likable, breezy listen.
- Favorite tracks: “Something to Say,” “I Told You So,” “Bulls,” “Maria,” “On My Way Out the Door”
- Least favorite track: “Still Got You”
Logan Halstead, Dark Black Coal
Depending on how deeply involved you are in country music’s underground these days, this may feel like a debut project long in coming. And if you’ve followed the rise of Appalachian-based singer-songwriters over the years like Tyler Childers, Cole Chaney, Kelsey Waldon, Charles Wesley Godwin, or Pony Bradshaw (just to, you know, name a few), you can understand why someone like Logan Halstead would slide in comfortably as well. He attracted viral attention with a live recording of “Dark Black Coal,” written when he was just 15 years old, but as far as actual recorded material goes … well, he joined Arlo McKinley for “Back Home,” one of my favorite songs from last year, but there’s been very little outside of that.
Even then, I’ll admit to some personal reservations ahead of his debut album proper. With just how much these acoustic-based odes to Appalachia have flooded the market in recent years, it is harder now for artists who play within that lane to stand out a little better on their own merits. And that’s why I’m admittedly cooler on this album than I’d like to be. To be fair, for an artist who’s now only 19 years old, this sets a good foundation, but it very much feels like an album that walks in the shadows of its influences. And I think it’s only further punctuated for me by the two covers on this album: Cole Chaney’s “The Flood,” one of my favorite songs of 2021, and Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” both of which work for their richer character-based framing and harrowing narratives that fit this album’s generally bleak, hopeless mood, even if I wouldn’t say either outshines any other version.
But it’s also those tracks that show a greater depth to the songwriting in their emotional toils of death and despair that stand at odds with other tracks here, which mostly feel more broadly sketched and not as gripping because of it. They hit most of the basic notes for this type of material that you’d expect: a messy relationship with the coal industry, a frantic desperation to rise above despite too fatigued and worn down to accept anything other than the hand dealt by life, and, despite all of that, a bones-deep connection to one’s roots.
I think the further issue, though, is that this plays to the same generally raw, acoustic nature of those aforementioned artists without embracing something more unique in its overall soundscape. Yes, it is made to feel more primitive and indebted to its roots in its folk-like nature, right down to Halstead’s voice being nestled deeper within the mix to give off a live feel to the material. But there’s very little in the way of groove or melodic punch to better accent stiff moments like “Good Ol’ Boys With Bad Names,” “Man’s Gotta Eat,” “Kentucky Sky,” or “Coal River,” not helped by, again, the songwriting feeling a bit more basic in its overall approach. Really, outside of the covers, the chipper rollick of the mandolin to add a bit more punch to the desperation of “Mountain Queen,” and Arlo McKinley’s appreciated counterbalance on “Uneven Ground,” this album plods and runs together fairly quickly. The spare touches of fiddle help, but they’re not doing much to define these songs or drive them along. I can still see why it connects with folks; it’s just not for me.
- Favorite tracks: “The Flood,” “Mountain Queen,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”
- Least favorite track: “Good Ol’ Boys With Bad Names”
Megan Moroney, Lucky
Like I’ve said before, I don’t know where to place expectations for artists who go viral on TikTok these days. There’s room for quality to disrupt the system and lead to very interesting shakedowns (the Zach Bryan effect, for one), but there’s also a lot of forgettable, middle-of-the-road material that just seems to clog space for a moment and then disappear forever.
So while it’s still too early to tell where Megan Moroney will land in the long term – even if she has been able to parlay her success into a major label deal – I did enjoy “Tennessee Orange” well enough when I first heard it. And with debut album Lucky set to potentially offer a better answer … well, I’m slightly torn on it, even if did disrupt my expectations in a mostly good way. For one, like “Tennessee Orange” hinted, this is actually a fairly organic pop-country record, with enough neotraditional flourishes to play toward, oddly enough, ‘90s-era Shania Twain or maybe Lorrie Morgan. And there’s often enough burnished texture overall to complement Moroney’s husky vocals. Actually, it surprises me just how much this album finds itself in downbeat territory for a major label debut, even aiming for more intimate, confessional acoustic balladry on more than a few occasions.
With that said, an overall good sense in tone doesn’t really mask how generally flat this album can feel, not just in its overall grooves (the twangy, jumpy title track tries to be playful but feels overall pretty choppy) but also in how neutered it can feel when aiming for more grandiose moments. It feels more serviceable rather than exceptional or unique, not helped by Moroney herself. For as much as I hate to say it, she’s probably the biggest deterrent to this album. She’s not a particularly great singer and generally lacks charisma and presence, which can definitely work on the album’s downbeat moments but otherwise fall flat.
Of course, I’d also like to counter that by saying that, for the most part, the writing on this project is the star of the show in a big way and what surprised me most. It’s easy to tell that a bad breakup informed this project by how much it’s anchored through clever kiss-off tracks, where the deeper, sadder details reveal themselves in Moroney’s reflections to herself. “Girl in the Mirror” is the big highlight in that regard, the unfortunate classic case of a woman who settles for an abuser as a partner because she doesn’t feel brave enough to love herself more or settle for better, where it’s later revealed she’s singing to herself. And through other tracks where she’s torn down on “I’m Not Pretty,” “Mustang or Me” (which reminded me of Julie Roberts’ “Break Down Here” in a good way), and “Sleep On My Side,” it’s easy to see where a sad disillusionment toward love stems from, and adds weight to more self-affirming moments like “Another On the Way” and “Georgia Girl” where she tries to rise above it. And at least on one of the album’s few love songs in the closer, “Sad Songs For Sad People,” she’s on her way, hollow as this song can feel on a compositional level otherwise.
If I had to name the two clunkers in this regard, though, they’d easily be “Traitor Joe,” which I hate on premise alone but dislike even more for the fact that it’s just a hokey reference made for nothing, and the hackneyed “God Plays a Gibson.” Even then, I’m still not sure if Moroney is here to stay for the long term, and this album isn’t without its flaws, but the generally sharp writing did exceed my expectations for this debut album. It’s decent and worth a shot.
- Favorite tracks: “Tennessee Orange,” “Girl in the Mirror,” “Another On the Way,” “Georgia Girl”
- Least favorite track: “Traitor Joe”