Continuing to expand on elements of folk and rock, Margo Price brings a different coating to her sound on Strays, her newest album. More atmospheric and streamlined, its country core becomes more potent, opening up a new stage for her vocals to explore new foundations. I was surprised by my initial enjoyment, gravitating closer to the distinct vocal textures supplemented by its consistent production. However, that surprise waned when I saw the production credits, and it all made sense. Produced by Johnathan Wilson, whose production you’ve heard effervescently on Father John Misty’s albums and last year’s Big Time by Angel Olsen, my favorite of 2022, the album switches sonic context, choosing a lane without overstepping with some of the atmospheric coatings. Unlike Big Time, Margo Price doesn’t always have a level of nuance in her writing and performances, sometimes skewing the pacing or having a proper balance between production and vocals; however, a good amount of tracks standout, leaving some of these issues as bumps on the road.
Opening with a triumphantly radiant and psychedelic country-rock song, “Been to the Mountains,” it drives forth sensibilities Margo Price wants to imbue with the themes on both sides of the aisle. In the liner notes written for the album, “This was one of the very first songs that flowed out the next day after we came down from our mushroom trip. I just really wanted to incorporate poetry. I wanted it to be really psychedelic, and I wanted this album to be able to serve as a record that people could put on if they were going to maybe dabble in psychedelics.” The sounds become more potent and the lyrics more poignant as the wheels continue to turn and the music starts to become whole. Unfortunately, these psychedelic tendencies can sometimes modestly overreach parameters to steal the spotlight from Price’s vocals. She has a command of it, but the mixing can slightly dilute sonic components, letting the instrumentations have control while you get lost amidst the captivating electric and string sections.
Unlike “Been to the Mountains,” the times the instrumentation levels are higher are heard in “Change of Heart” and “Hell In The Heartland,” where the guitar strings, synths, and effect guitars overcome varying aspects of the song. It’s similarly the case with “Light Me Up;” however, a key difference is that “Light Me Up” focuses on its vibe, exponentially increasing particular layers like a roller coaster. Building from an opening acoustic set, it picks up steam after the first verse, especially Price’s vocals. It doesn’t let Mike Campbell’s slick guitar playing deviate, instead synchronizing beautifully through the different sonic complexions. Though I’m not saying her vocals are inaudible, levels don’t sound balanced, and some words aren’t as clear, turning your attention back to the instrumentations. After a first listen-through, you start to pick up the pieces and hear the poeticism controlling Price’s fingers as she writes both lyrics and music. It’s stylistically consistent and pertinent to Margo Price’s direction with Strays, sometimes mellowing out from the rock-driven aesthetic to something more folkish, like the lovely “County Road.”
Like many tracks on the album, Price gets reflective no matter the perspective – whether personal or interconnected, the uniquely wild stories get boasted by great songwriting. Despite this, like “Hell In The Heartland,” not everything translates well; some have pacing that tends to leave you lost in the winds with certain tracks, like “Lydia” and “Light Me Up.” Though the pacing is an issue, it isn’t that bothersome as the music ends up being rewarding when you understand the gravitas of the themes getting presented – a wandering mind looking to comprehend their surroundings as the music’s melancholy and rockabilly finds the proper equilibrium for clarity. That message comes across as robust, and the notions brought about in the album write-up get the shine. It gets subdued in its psychedelic tones, leaving a lot to pedal effects, Wurlitzer electric piano, and synths. There’s some nuance, though elevated by her vocal performances; the split comes with those notions from the album/liner notes, which focuses on the influence Psilocybin had on her mental direction, allowing us to see this palliative hybrid between the low and high octanes in the instrumentations.
Strays was a good listen, despite its issues. It expresses elements beyond the country aesthetic Margo Price has molded herself with, opening new avenues to play with the genre and deliver these fantastical atmospheric pieces. They take us away from her slightly more traditionalist nature of previous albums, producing something pensive and radiant. I didn’t necessarily love it all, but there were enough tracks to return, especially with some the moxie expressed in the vocals and production.