Margo Price – Strays: Review

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.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds: Review

As it is with many, when the subject of Country music gets brought up, we can immediately become dismissive since its gen-pop style has us express slight disdain from the more honky-tonk country akin to early Kenny Chesney. But, when you remind yourself that ignorance isn’t bliss, it extends to music as a whole. Country’s extensive history, and nature, have given us fantastic stories with whimsical subtexts, stylistic ingenuity bridging blues and roots music, and a plethora of incredible artists not named Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers, or gen-pop hoe-down tonk. Nikki Lane is another one you can add to that list, especially now, with the dynamic Denim & Diamonds. Her writing has had a resounding presence, getting elevated by keying into characteristics of the Roots Rock and Outlaw Country genres. In her own way, Lane is an outlaw in Country, as she stays true to herself and makes her music that kind you can actually rock out to feverishly without overbearing notes.

See, there is something about Country music that gives me some momentary bliss from the overly glitzy and produced instrumentals that start to tire you out because you can’t always be in synthesized trance. The genre has its own within its mass ecosphere, but the nuanced, melodic styles of the past have kept my inner, old soul afloat. Some great, some mediocre, and some bad, digging further into this world has given my ears new dimensions. Nikki Lane is that but with rugged rockadelic sounds that will have your eyes reflecting those diamonds in the rough. With Denim & Diamonds, we get music with clever songwriting that keeps you on your toes, buoyed by wildly creative and fun harmonies and melodies that some weaker instrumentations become ingrained into the final product. But there are a few times where it might be more difficult as the well-intentioned fail to capitalize on better deliveries. “Try Harder” fails to have as significant an impact as the opening “First High.” “Try Harder” is monotonous instrumentally like “Faded,” lacking a spark until the end when we get a wicked guitar semi-solo; fortunately, the album sparks brightly.

“First High” makes a distinguished impact, like the many tracks on Denim & Diamonds. Nikki Lane begins with a reflection on her roots, particularly the first time she fell in love with rock-n-roll and played her first note; however, we’ve heard her grow. Her first album was more rock, and the follow-ups brought in more country, and this one finds perfect synergy between the two. So when “First High” shifts from the melancholic strings (resonant with blues) into this more audaciously deep rock layers, which incorporates pedals, transfixing you into her musical world. Produced by Josh Homme, founder of Queens of the Stone Age, the two create an elegant hybrid that tiptoes around centralized genres expressing her unique identity. We hear it contextually within the production, further building the instrumentations with nuance, especially within the string sections; some of its rhythmic patterns, subtle or unsubtle riffs, or solos beneath a rich orchestration. 

“Good Enough” evokes an old Country soul, incorporating the fiddle as a contrast to its plucky guitar, all underneath the atmospheric coating that oozes the feeling one can describe as home is where the heart is,” vaguely. It’s grounded in reality as it never gets the urge to overdevelop, especially in the strings arrangements. Nikki Lane is tender, focusing on lessons learned through a relationship, which elevated her mental help finding solace in understanding she’s good enough.  “Black Widow” contrasts the style of “Good Enough,” as we hear Lane expressing her true badass self in a thrift store leather jacket and jeans over rustic and anthem-like instrumentations driving through the lyrical connotation given to us in “First High.” It’s a third-person extension of “Born Tough,” a potent country rock anthem that delivers with oomph and a sense of empowerment that gets boasted by its colorful instrumentations. We hear both sides of her–the personable like “Pass It Down” and the more impactfully driven bravado of the others mentioned.

Denim & Diamonds is an amalgamation of Nikki Lane’s musical personality. She gives us temperate Americana and Blues/Roots music that reflects her more personal (diamond) side; the denim is that rough-trade, pick-up-your-bootstraps Country, finding the perfect synergy, despite the ups and downs. Sometimes she finds ways to blend the two into a beautiful blend that tames the senses, especially as you get the chance to feel and hear remarkable storytelling through different contextual moods. You get this naturalistic feeling in most instrumentations–more importantly, in her melodies and songwriting as she finds unique avenues to express the platitude of layers within. Lane inflects sheer individualist bravado, letting herself feel one with the elevated country undertones as it blends with other styles and, at times, becomes the central force driving you home.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Angel Olsen – Big Time: Review

After reinventing herself with different aspects of pop–All Mirrors–and past stark and flaky atmospheres in folk and rock, Angel Olsen continues to shape her art, making music resonant with her identity on her new album, Big Time. In an interview with Pitchfork for the album, Angel Olsen said, “I have learned to let go of the labels and embrace what I’m feeling in the moment. And I ended up making a country record, or something like a country record.” Big Time is emotionally potent and sonically harmonious, bringing new dimensions to her artistry. It skews from modern country conventions, rooting itself in a more traditional country, giving her vocal performance depth, reeling you with captivating emotional performances and a sense of whimsy.

Big Time is a powerful emotional experience. Since the last time Angel Olsen spoke to us, she has gone through personal change–from coming out to the loss of her mother–Olsen brings a heavy platter of thoughts that expands on her story. In doing so, Olsen subdues the glitz of overly produced country music, opting for an extraordinary approach that elevates the emotional gravitas. It grips you from the first song, “All The Good Times;” the drums reel you in with melancholic bravado from Olsen, producing a feel for the direction of Big Time. The album is reminiscent of a traditional style from the 50s/60s/70s era, taking unique paths to actualize them to life. The creativity within the construction of the songs brings elements that enforce its stagey presence. The engineering is crisp, creating a foundation in a smooth crescendo where each section becomes audibly potent in creation, from the brass and horn sections to the percussion and strings.

Adjacently, Angel Olsen beautifully delivers fantastical and starry country ballads creating a subtle balance based on context. One moment she’s reflecting on moments before the loss of a loved one in “This Is How It Works,” another she’s embracing the joy of love from her significant other in “All the Flowers.” She ranges in tone, creating a more somber ballad with the latter and letting the vocals carry the slightly lowly production, unlike the former, where the strength comes on both ends vibrantly. Angel Olsen notes her sensibilities effervescently, aiming at encapsulating conflicting emotions with ease. It’s an album that feels true to itself, never toeing a line of obscurity. She delivers potent and poignant material, increasing the length of our emotional response from listening to the album, and it wouldn’t be right of me if I didn’t say Big Time brings tears, whether metaphorical or literal.

The eponymous track, “Big Time,” offers a flurry of distinguishingly haunting but starry string orchestration, bringing this sense of accepting identity. It’s a sonic consistency that is eloquently heard through some softer songs, like “Dream Thing” and “Go Home.” Angel Olsen brings over arching dualities that offer connectivity between artist and listener as her words hit closer to the heart. Olsen sings about identity, love, mistakes, and loneliness, bringing that sense of connectivity through memories and allowing time to act as a concept that prolongs our actions and inactions. She has a way of getting your hips swaying slowly, bringing the spirit of an old country-blues bar local performance while reflecting these thematic complexities effectively. It’s something she reflects eloquently through her accompanying short film; it doesn’t lose focus, weaving a story about identity and the fear of taking major leaps reflective of it. It tells the story of an LGBTQI+ couple, one of whom hasn’t come out to their parents, especially when they are ill–eventually, they pass, creating friction from emotions and using time as a means to escape and reflect.

That’s where Angel Olsen hits her stride. She grabs her strengths and works to endure them longer when evolving. It isn’t Olsen’s first foray into country, weaving elements of Alt-Country/Folk into the aesthetic of 2012’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness. However, the difference lies in how components of the genre get used within the production. Its percussion-string-heavy style doesn’t speak hoedown like “High & Wind” off Burn Your Fire For No Witness; it’s instead centered on traditionalism, creating room for the vocals to blossom and radiate with ethereal melodies. It’s reminiscent of the early tempos of Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline, and others of that era–think “Long, Long Time” by Ronstadt or “Crazy” by Cline. But Angel Olsen can establish her identity depending on the song’s context as she plays to the depth of her heart. It’s resonant with the eponymous short film, which brings to light the narrative arc. It captures the essence of the style, elevating it to new heights, and delivering Olsen’s best album to date.

Big Time is both transformative and emotionally gripping. It is rare for me to love a country album in its entirety, and this is one of those rare occasions. From its start to end, I was grasping tears while listening to Angel Olsen deliver whimsical melodies. Olsen continuously breaks down walls of vulnerability, specifically musically, but now it’s more potent. Similar to many, I’m here for it. There are no skips in this emotional journey we take with Angel Olsen, and I hope you take that journey too.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) Is A Beautiful Journey Through Old Memories: Review

It’s emotionally conflicting how reflective music can be; whether through life-connections that coincide with the teenage angst within or the nuance from an era where a difference in the music comes from the change in lyrics. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is an amalgamation of these senses and more, as she takes us on part 1 of her journey of re-recording her first six albums to retain the masters of her first six albums. This new version brings matured vocal performances that carry personal-emotional experiences from the career and life she has had since the release of Fearless in 2008. However, this version is not that different from the original, outside minimal tweaks and maturity in her voice that adds a new perspective to the writing and production, with beautifully re-polished mixes.

Taylor Swift’s vocal maturity underlies her recent vocal performances, adding a different feel on the surface. It maintains the steady-balance it had on the genre spectrum, never truly feeling defined by one genre and further allowed her to expand her creative mind. Behind the voice and styles you could hear a part of her aspire to make music that isn’t held back by genre-conventions. A lot of her soft-sung material creates new depth as her voice brings in that sense of reflection and brings the harbored memories from when you first heard these songs. This makes songs like “Fifteen,” “The Way I Loved You,” and “Today Was a Fairytale,” more impactful because the perspective leads you through a nostalgia trip where one can dream about non-adulting things and focus on those dreamy aspirations like a fairytale romance or your future aspirations. The latter of that trio of songs being one is a definitively better version, but the youthful vocals from 2010 adds more characterization to the story. 

One constant that differentiates the two versions is the mainline producer. Nathan Chapman did the production and the harmonization, while Christopher Rowe, from Taylor’s band, did the work this time around. It shows, as they bring back most of her band to repurpose their parts; which in turn adds distinct layering that reminds of the old, but you’d rather stick with the new. You can hear it from the beginning as they play at the same pace – with more nuance on “Fearless” and “Change.” It makes her past singles standout out more on the surface allowing for many, a good cry. This was a sentiment I’ve come to know very well with the duet “Breathe,” featuring the incomparable Colbie Caillat, whose redone vocals brought a happy tear to my eye.

Overall, the production/engineering/mixing are slight improvements on the many rough patches the original version of Fearless had on some of the harmonization layers and mixing, but it was never much of a deterrent. These songs, like “Superstar,” and “Jump Then Fall,” don’t hit that dynamic threshold she has shown to hit on many occasions, but that may be due to the impactful nature behind the vocal performance, that at times feels jaunty and roots-like in the string section and that stands out more than the whole. This has been a constant thing that made these tracks less desirable at the time for me, and still does today. And for the most part, there are no real underlying differences in the construction and notes that are in sequence on the production, but there is a more authentic and rustic overlay that brings a different light to the way we intake these songs.

Amongst the 19-tracklist of the original tracks on Fearless: Platinum Edition are new songs she had in the vault. These new songs bring back her two collaborators from Folklore and Evermore, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dressner to create country – like orchestration/production for Taylor to deliver what ran through her mind at the time of writing. As evident with the inner angst in the writing, you could tell there were some pots she didn’t want to stir further. “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” co-produced by Jack Antonoff, trades a lot of country overtures and implements them subtly in the string section, allowing the percussion to commandeer the production and take it to some poppy heights. 

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is like the refurbished product that got mislabeled as such. So when you get it and you find out it is a brand new product that was never on the floor you are beyond ecstatic. The unpacking feels like you are doing it in Taylor Swift’s presence and it begins to feel like a brand new album, based on the complexities in the layering with the new mixing it goes through. It doesn’t have that same youthful energy that she emboldens with her voice at the time. But as it is with growth, the voice will be different and that’s how it creates this feeling like it is something new.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.