On The Rocks

Midland

Big Machine Records, 2017

http://www.midlandofficial.com

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/10/2018

I can’t lay claim to having been a huge fan of country music in my lifetime. Around these parts in Wisconsin, it’s definitely one of, if not the most popular kind of music, but it was certainly never my favorite. But as the years have passed and the grey hairs (GAH!) have slowly started to crop up in my hair, the genre has begun to offer up enough pleasant moments to pique my interest.

So it feels ironic to be part of the “old crowd” that bemoans the current state of country music, with its focus on personalities and pop hooks, more than the elements that once made it genuine. Suffice to say, we have come a long way from bands like The Byrds or The Eagles taking elements of what they liked from country and blending it with their own. In 2018, it decidedly feels like the opposite, where the big names in country have moved so far towards standard pop fare you’d be hard pressed to realize the difference.

Thus, it was with great pleasure that while my wife was watching the CMAs, or ACAs (I honestly don’t remember, and couldn’t tell you the difference) earlier this year, I happened to catch a performance by a country trio who couldn’t have sounded/looked more different than your Kane Browns. That group was Midland, dressed up in attention-grabbing, vintage style suits, performing lead single “Drinkin’ Problem.” Simply put, I just had to find out more.

And now, a calendar year since On the Rocks was released, my initial opinion of the band or the album hasn’t changed...it’s one of my favorites of 2018. It’s a glorious throwback to the sounds of the ‘80s and early ‘90s in country music, and not in a “let’s just throw a few bones to the crowd” type of way; it’s in their DNA. Were Midland a pale imitation of your George Straits, it wouldn’t be enough. Luckily, the songs are nbtc__dv_250 damn good.

I have to simply marvel at the craftsmanship and sheer skill that went into the hooks on On The Rocks. The singles are ear-worms to be sure...but it would be just as easy to name some of the album cuts that could have been singles as well. Take “Drinkin’ Problem” for instance; it’s a stellar, no brainer single. But it’s immediately followed up by “At Least You Cried,” an up-tempo mariachi band inspired little piece of songwriting that is just as good. And the harmonies...I have always been and will always be a sucker for great harmonies. And let me tell you, folks, Midland has those in spades (Close your eyes and tell me they don’t sound like The Eagles during “More Than A Fever”).

If anything, were I to pick some nits, I’d say that the lead vocalist Mark Wystrach has an okay voice. It does the job and doesn’t distract from the vibe of the album. But if there was room for growth on On The Rocks, it would come from there.

Country music is at its best when it tell a great story. The story doesn’t have to be obvious or steeped in clichés, and yet when you turn on the radio, that’s a lot of what you hear. I won’t take pot shots at anyone in particular, but allow me to allay the fears that such things will crop up during On The Rocks; they don’t. There is character in the songs, and yes, those classic tropes of booze and women and down-on-their-luck men are the driving point for many a song, but it doesn’t cross over into self-parody. And there’s a beautiful, evocative quality to some of the lyrics. For instance, “Burn Out” creates this crystal clear image that encapsulate a melancholy night alone at a bar, memories slowing fading away until there’s nothing left.

Researching Midland did reveal a few discussions surrounding the band that merit some mention,, mainly their “credibility” when it comes to their formation and success. Completely unawares, I had stumbled into stories talking about the perception of Midland and the publicity machine surrounding the album’s release. The general thought was that this was a band that had spent years working away in bars small venues before making it big. That storyline wasn’t necessarily believed by everyone, considering the personal history of some of the members of the band (VMA award winners), and thus, criticisms of the narratives surrounding the band were a prominent part of the discussion around On The Rocks. Normally, there aren’t “stories” about albums like there was here so I tend not to write about them, but for those who do concern themselves with such things, it warranted some brief talk. Admittedly, in this reviewer’s eyes, the music far outweighs the critiques of how it got made.

When it comes to those albums, there are multiple ways in which they can make the grade (no pun intended). It can knock your socks off from the first listen, it can show up on your turntable years after release, it can be a slow burner, it can rocket to the top on the strength of a great song or two, and on and on. For this reviewer, On the Rocks ticks off a couple of those boxes. It will be hard to wait for their follow up.

Rating: A-

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