Clusterpluck Album Reviews: The Malpass Brothers, Stephen Wilson Jr., and Bailey Zimmerman

This roundup is a bit all over the place stylistically, for better or worse. And it’s one of those cases that makes certain albums both easier and harder to discuss at length. Let’s see how it goes. Onward!

Malpass Brothers, Lonely Street

The Malpass Brothers, Lonely Street

The Malpass Brothers are something of an old-fashioned duo, in more ways than one. I first heard of brothers Chris and Taylor Malpass through their self-titled 2015 album, which played mostly toward the Golden Era ‘50s and ‘60s country sound directly in its cover choices and original songs. And that’s generally the lane they’ve always played in, reminiscent of similar retro-leaning sibling duo The Cactus Blossoms, only geared less toward rockabilly and the Everly Brothers and more toward, say, Lefty Frizzell or Ray Price in his honky tonk years.

And I also use the term “old-fashioned” to describe their marketing, too, because as a whole they’ve been out of the spotlight for a long while to better focus on touring; really, unless you’re tuned into Larry’s Country Diner or listen to the Grand Ole Opry, this is probably not a duo on your immediate radar. So, in looking at Lonely Street as something of an overdue follow-up project, it mostly plays toward expectations for this duo’s brand of retro pastiche: It’s generally bouncy from a melodic standpoint, and the harmonies are generally pretty stellar (my favorite showcase for that being “Out of Sight and Out of Mind”), even if both brothers are compelling vocalists on their own in nailing that sweet, drawn-out tone of the era. It’s generally a pretty relaxed, low-key but inviting album as a whole, especially if you’re inclined to immediately enjoy throwback material in this vein … even if the writing can be a bit corny and cheesy at points to reflect the old-fashioned family values of the era, for better or worse.

More on that later, though it is worth noting that the duo’s production has picked up a bit more distinctive muscle this time around: “Paying For the Dream” references Jerry Reed toward the end and somewhat plays to his lane through the rambling groove and road dog mentality; “The Man I Ain’t” picks up some Spanish-flavored acoustics for an overall more biting kiss-off; Jeannie Seely’s “We Don’t” gets a nice revival, a classic divorce track that smartly showcases both perspectives in the falling out, with Brennen Leigh sliding in nicely to provide that counterbalance and a genuine highlight; and the album ends strong with “Road of Memories,” an overall more tempered cut riding off the warm acoustics for a heartfelt tribute to the road the two have traveled, which also pays tribute to family members no longer around who helped guide them on their journey.

Now, the more interesting note, for me, is the writing, particularly in how much this often sounds like a very bitter album drenched in heartache … and can also seem odd when the album loses its more distinctive touches to play toward more conventional ‘50s and ‘60s melodic structures and set up an odd tonal mismatch. Sure, tracks like “I’ve Got Her On My Mind Again” and “Love Is A Lonely Street” are harmless enough, but their generally bouncy, rollicking nature just doesn’t suit content that involves cheating and loneliness. That’s the caveat that usually comes attached to these retro-leaning acts, in that they often pay tribute to their influences well, but only rarely step outside their shadows to bring more meat to the table.

To be fair, there’s a way to strike that balance well. “Paying For the Dream” is the sort of typical, self-deprecating touring song where they know it costs too much to operate consistently. But they lean into that self-awareness with a dash of dark humor to at least add weight to their plight. And a song that leans directly into that bitterness head-on through “We Can’t Still Be Friends,” anchored in its rich piano and slow torment, is generally effective. I would say the writing can lack a slightly more distinctive edge at points, but there are rarely any missteps, outside of the clichéd, “opposite-day” writing approach employed on “That’ll Be the Day,” the cute but cheesy ‘50s swing of “Sleep When the Party’s Over,” and the Elvis Presley cover of the awfully cloying, schmaltzy “Don’t Cry Daddy.” But it’s also hard to find those true standout moments, outside of a few highlights. Even still, if you’re more of an immediate fan of this sound and know what to expect, it’s a solid listen.

  • Favorite tracks: “Paying For the Dream,” “The Man I Ain’t,” “We Don’t” (feat. Brennen Leigh), “Out of Sight and Out of Mind,” “Road of Memories”
  • Least favorite track: “Don’t Cry Daddy”

Buy or stream the album.

Bon aqua ep

Stephen Wilson Jr., bon aqua EP

I struggle with where to begin with this album and artist. Stephen Wilson Jr. is an artist who’s made waves within Nashville since the mid-2010s, mostly as a songwriter for other artists (Brothers Osborne, Caitlyn Smith, etc.), and as a solo artist with a few scattered singles. It is, however, the approach that’s always captured interest first and foremost, not just from a marketing standpoint for some … interesting visual videos attached to his material, but also for the country-meets-’90s grunge sound that’s met with mixed results in Texas, but rarely seen in Nashville at all (not to a listenable degree, that is). Even with that said, I’d be lying if I said the name was familiar to me, until just recently with this debut EP.  

Then again, I’m glad it wasn’t, because this is the type of release that both exceeds and fails to meet expectations one might set, which is more revealing of a potentially interesting core than a slam-dunk, cohesive effort. Most have pointed to HARDY as a comparison point, but I think it’s way off the mark. This plays weirdly toward, of all things, that collaborative effort between Yelawolf and Shooter Jennings from last year – maybe with a smattering of early 2010s Eric Church – a spacious country-rock effort that often aims for coarsing, atmospheric, well-developed grooves and pounding percussion dripped in a lot of smokey texture. Throw in the references to heartland-inspired Americana in some of the tonal choices and especially the writing, and you’ve got another ‘90s tribute project to emanate out of Nashville … albeit in a much different way than what that typically implies.

That’s also why I said this will defy expectations for some, because I was not expecting Wilson Jr. to carry such a rough, full-throated delivery reminiscent of maybe Whitey Morgan or Ward Davis, which leans into the darker, bluesier slices of Americana mostly well. You wouldn’t expect him to be such a hell of a distinctive presence behind the microphone … which is why it stings when the material itself doesn’t always measure up to those expectations. It certainly starts strong with “the devil,” which despite being something of a vague political song that’s trying to be too much at once in connecting with everyone, is mostly framed with good intentions in speaking for the people and not at them. And again, the well-tempered, haggard texture does add weight to make up for a slight lack of actual wisdom.

But it’s also that track that showcases my biggest issue with the project at large: the writing. To be fair, despite this mostly acting as a collection of checklist odes to the country lifestyle, it feels mostly personally rooted, both for nostalgic purposes and to find personal peace. It’s more harmless than bad, in other words. And at least in his detailed ode to childhood off the spacious, AM-driven sheen of “Year to Be Young 1994,” it’s damn-near anthemic and potent. But there’s also a track right before it called “American Gothic,” where the Hailey Whitters assist is appreciated, even though it’s just a broadly sketched look at the same sentiment that feels way too polished to live up to the title or references made within.

It’s one of those projects where a few moments showcase enormous potential while others misfire and feel like more accessible, conventional cuts aimed at mainstream country radio – the biggest offender being the generic “Hometown” that throws in millennial whoops (as does “billy,” to a lesser degree, thankfully) and feels like an early throwaway Mumford & Sons cut, at best. And then there’s “Holler From the Holler,” where I like that he leans into the role of being a shy, quiet kid who had to grow up to be tough and find himself, even if it’s also the most grunge-focused, distortion-filled track and actually sticks the landing until a dragged-out ending makes it feel overly compressed.

And then follows “billy,” where the hook is, “You can call me ‘Billy’ but the hills come with me,” and where the vocal mixing is at its muddiest overall … and where I don’t know what to make of it otherwise. Stupid as that hook is, it’s strong on a technical level, especially coasting off that faster-paced groove. And like with how it opened with “the devil,” it ends with “The Beginning,” another smoky song that leans more on the darker heaviness of its best moments and gets biblical and apocalyptic before reversing course to suggest things are getting better … and also doesn’t really take it somewhere I didn’t hear done better before with Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country.” It’s tough, because tonally I like a lot of what Wilson Jr. aims to achieve here and would love to see it expanded upon in a future project. But it’s also frustratingly inconsistent and detailed but rarely interesting. Still worth a shot – if anything, for being one of the stranger albums I’ve reviewed thus far this year – but I’d call it a cautious first step, if anything.

  • Favorite tracks: “the devil,” “Year to Be Young 1994,” “billy,” “The Beginning”
  • Least favorite track: “Hometown”

Stream the album.

Religiously the album

Bailey Zimmerman, Religiously. The Album.

I can’t exactly say I’m surprised that Bailey Zimmerman and his team are striking while the iron is hot off the huge success of “Rock and a Hard Place” – even despite just releasing a project last fall – but it does call into question if a debut like this might feel too piecemeal and jerky after releasing so many singles ahead of time. Welcome to the new world, I suppose.

This is a slightly different case, however, as outside of the radio singles carried over from last year’s Leave the Light On, this is mostly new material. But it’s also one of those frustrating cases where I can hear general improvements across the board but walk away slightly less impressed from before. I have tended to like his material more than most, given how he pulls on touches of 2000s post-grunge and organic country tones to create strikingly dark heartbreak songs anchored by a lot of bitter fallouts. And I have always appreciated the even-keeled framing in how he’s willing to point the finger of blame both ways. It’s rooted less in angry machismo and more in embarrassingly vulnerable and emotionally honest sentiments, and that does help provide something of a distinctive edge.

By bringing in even darker tones and more organic, windswept production through touches of smokey pedal steel and even fiddle and dobro to amplify his sound, too, I’d say there’s a more genuinely gripping core on this project than his last one. But I think it’s here where I’m also starting to hear the slight limitations of his scope and framing, not helped by the overlong nature of this project or by how there’s very little actual progression to his general brand of angsty melodrama. “Fall in Love,” “Rock and a Hard Place,” and “Where It Ends” all remain highlights from before. And of the newer cuts, I was really impressed by the smoky, burned-out textures of “Fix’n to Break” that leans into a nice uptick in groove later on in ramping up the general tension of wanting closure for a frayed relationship – might be my favorite thing I’ve heard yet from him, honestly.

Elsewhere, tracks that lean more into that jagged, tempered atmosphere such as “You Don’t Want That Smoke” – which is just haggard enough in tone off the delivery and touches of pedal steel and fiddle to work as a warning song – and “Pain Won’t Last” – a motivational song that actually carries enough potent smolder to work as is – provide the other highlights for me. And, though random and somewhat jarring for this album, the Johnny Cash cover of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is surprisingly good.

What I’m less impressed by are the moments that lean into more of a generic, washed-out heaviness that, paradoxically, isn’t even as potent or anthemic as the more reserved cuts. “Forget About You” and “Chase Her” are really the only culprits in that regard, though it is unfortunate that the album ends with two of its worst cuts in “Get to Gettin’ Gone” and “Is It Really Over” by playing to more choppy, grooveless, conventional mainstream country standards that feel way too lightweight for this sort of material. Again, this album can scan as a bit one-note overall in its framing, to the point where it feels less like a matter of maintaining cohesion and more like one content with adding filler. It makes for an odd comparison point to the project from last year, a less robust but overall tighter and more focused collection. Even then, I do still hear potential for greatness here – it still just needs that extra push.

  • Favorite tracks: “Fix’n to Break,” “Fall in Love,” “You Don’t Want That Smoke,” “Rock and a Hard Place,” “Pain Won’t Last,” “Where It Ends”
  • Least favorite track: “Is It Really Over?”

Buy or stream the album.

2 thoughts on “Clusterpluck Album Reviews: The Malpass Brothers, Stephen Wilson Jr., and Bailey Zimmerman

  1. My 2 cents on BZ – I HATE the trend of adding :The Album to an album title and that album cover is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Very ‘graphic design is my passion’

    Liked by 1 person

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