Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Album Review/Rant: Margo Price - Midwest Farmer's Daughter


For the past year or two, country music has really been on quite the hot streak with some classic, poignant and memorable releases from young artists. If it’s not Chris Stapleton finally winning fans with his own songs (all the way to a Grammy) it’s Kacey Musgraves tackling different subject matter on her album Pageant Material that gave country music fans something different to consider. In 2014, Lydia Loveless released her incredible and refreshing album Somewhere Else and Nikki Lane reinvigorated the “rough around the edges” female country singer image and broke country stereotypes with her album All or Nothin’. And if Jason Isbell didn’t floor you with his 2013 album Southeastern he proceeded to knock you on your ass with his follow up Something More Than Free. All of these albums are just for starters kids. If you reach deeper into the indie country circuit you’re bound to find plenty of awesome country music being made. Adding to this plentiful bounty now is Margo Price.

Country newcomer Margo Price released her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter on March 25th on Jack White’s Third Man Records and, following an explosive presence at this year’s South by Southwest, has forced her way into the minds and hearts of every music fan looking for a reason to fall in love (or back in love) with country music. Her many performances at the Austin, TX music festival helped her album make a historic appearance on the music charts, making her become the first female country solo artist to debut in the Top 10 without having any songs previously on the Hot Country Songs rankings.

Alright, let’s get this out of the way. I love this album. The sound on this album is phenomenal, a nice throwback to 60s, 70s country. The voice is reminiscent of Loretta Lynn, the lyrics of George Jones and the attitude of David Allen Coe all rolled into one badass, take no shit country artist.

The album is pure country but other music influences and sounds decorate the songs throughout the album. On the opening track “Hands of Time”, I couldn’t help but think of Janis Joplin’s soulful “Me and Bobby McGee” when the chorus hit. There’s no denying the 70's soul and funk vibe of “Four Years of Chances” from the opening rhythm of drummer Dillon Napier’s hi-hat to Micah Hulscher’s fender rhodes electric piano and the wah-wah of guitarist Matt Ross-Spang. There’s the 60's r&b, doo-wop feel to “How the Mighty Have Fallen” that sinks you down and envelopes you into the downright misery of an ex-lover who has shown himself to be flawed. Joan Baez’s influence comes in with the folk song “World’s Greatest Loser”.

For me, the highlight of the album is “Tennessee Song”, a heavy stomp of a midwestern country song that opens with John Bonham-like drumming and a slick guitar riff following up. Price’s voice delivers the lyrics beautifully over a well constructed vocal melody. It’s a great song to crank the volume up in the car.

It’s no surprise this album landed on the genre free Third Man Records. Jack White’s love of old school country music is well documented. Margo recalled meeting White in her Rolling Stone profile saying “He shook my hand and he said he loved the album and that it was genuine and it was real and it was good to hear that back in country music” He’s right too. You can tell Price has experienced the subject matter first hand and has had to overcome the obstacles in order to have success. It’s a really good album and I’m glad I bought it. The replay value is high and the songs stick in my mind. However, like most releases, I do have my issues and concerns.

Country music is plagued with cliches. So much so that one of the main reasons people don’t like country is because “it’s all about my marriage ending because I drink too much and am always riding in my truck with my dog”. (that isn’t a direct quote from anyone in particular just an overall quote from the rest of the world) The subject matter is repetitive and tired and Price’s debut is full of them. She talks about having relationship problems, getting hurt by a lover, sticking it to her exes, putting a “hurtin’ on the bottle”, ending up in jail for the weekend. Please, stop me if you’ve heard all of this before.

None of this hurts the album, mind you. It fits with the tone and overall sound. Its genuine in the sense that she’s experienced all of these things first hand and rose to overcome them. She’s not writing this stuff simply because that’s what country songs should be about, but simply because she wanted to add that personal experience to her album. Having these same old country music themes on her debut album is fine and good, however my concerns lie on her next album and the one after that. What is she going to do on those albums? Will she push herself to take a more creative approach to country music? Or, will she stick to the rough around the edges female artist that we’ve grown accustomed to since the days of Loretta Lynn, drinking whiskey and getting revenge on her exes? I know I shouldn’t get her in trouble for something she hasn’t done yet, but we’ve seen this kind of thing before plus, there are signs leading to this happening.

In her Rolling Stone profile she made a comment, saying “"But I feel kind of like one of the men. I'm like David Allan Coe. I've been to prison, man! I think that's what separated me from the Kacey Musgraves, stuff like that.” This comment I couldn’t disagree with more and is one of the causes of my concerns. She didn’t separate herself from Kacey Musgraves. Musgraves separated herself from the pack because of what she sang about, the subject matter. Smoking weed and being accepting of a homosexual lifestyle and individuality (“Follow Your Arrow”), confronting the male dominated country music establishment (“Good Ol’ Boys Club”), self love (“Cup of Tea”). Doesn’t matter if you’ve been to jail or not, or that Kacey wears outfits that are sparkly and glittery. (is that a word?) If your songs have subject matter that is pointed, intentional and runs counter to the cliches of country music then who gives a shit if you’ve been to jail or not? Musgraves is doing something different within country music. I hope Price can say the same on future releases. I’m really hoping she does because I would love it.

Lydia Loveless is another country music artist striving to do something different within country music. Her sound is a mixture of country, rock, pop and punk. Yes, she sings about broken relationships and drinking whiskey (or wine) and doing drugs and all that, but she’s also singing about individuality (“More Like Them”), receiving oral sex (“Head”, oh my god a woman singing a country song about a guy going down on her NOOOOOOOO!!!!) and also about 19th century French poets (“Verlaine Shot Rimbaud”). Combining her subject matter with her sound musically, Loveless is creating space for herself outside of the country music norm, distinguishing herself. She plays up the rough around the edges image but also embraces the emotional, sensitive qualities at the same time.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying Price should be like Kacey Musgraves or Lydia Loveless. She should be herself and she’s doing that. All I simply want is for her to push herself above the pack and be great. If she embraces the creativity I suspect is inside her, combine it with her ferocious, out of this world voice, then who knows where that will take her. It could turn country music as a genre upside down, allowing the country artists that follow her to take her lead and be more creative within country music.

Those are my concerns and I'll leave them here, on this blog, for now. In the meantime, I will put her album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, on my turntable for a spin. I'll sink down and wrap my senses around her voice and music and get lost. After it's finished, I'll flip it over and play it again, treasuring this addition to the line of great country music albums that have been released in the past few years.

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