Wednesday, April 3, 2013

album review: 'same trailer, different park' by kacey musgraves

Let's return, again, to country music.

Over the course of the past year since I reviewed the Zac Brown Band's magnificent Uncaged, I've had a bit of a chance to get reacquainted with country music - and by reacquainted, I mean catch a glimpse at the singles that show up on the pop charts and the occasional YouTube video that pops up. And while I could say that I did indeed see more country music when I reviewed Taylor Swift's Red, I'd be lying, mostly because that album would be lying if it called itself country.

And yet Taylor Swift is considered one of the leading country acts in this day and age, a fact that doesn't so much baffle me as disappoint me. This is mostly because I'd be stretching to call Taylor Swift much of a leader in this field on any level - her lyrics are only getting more mundane and insufferable, her vocals are absolutely nothing to write home about, and when her instrumentation contains dubstep and electropop breakdowns, you can barely consider it country music anymore! 

Well, one thing's for damn sure, you really can't find many male country singers who can match Taylor Swift's star power. Tell me this: if you're not a dedicated country listener, do you think you would have a chance in hell telling Chris Young, Justin Moore, Jake Owen, Brantley Gilbert, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, or Luke Bryan apart? Sure, I can tell them apart, but your average listener isn't going to be able to pick out each voice in 'The Only Way I Know', which features the trio of Jason Aldean, Eric Church, and Luke Bryan. And then when you factor in acts like Rascal Flatts (who have and always will bore the living shit out of me) and the influx of male country acts from the 90s who are still making hits (Tim McGraw, Clay Walker, Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton, the list goes on), the country charts are buried in an influx of acts with no one taking a definite lead in the genre. For tNhe most part, too many of these guys sound the same, with the same country rock style and the same bland lyrics that seem to be about booze, girls, cars, and loving America. You hardly ever get acts that stand out much against the herd here - I mean, say what you want about Toby Keith, but at least the man has a distinctive sound and style to his songwriting and charismatic delivery that makes him stick out. Brad Paisley has his excellent guitar playing, Florida Georgia Line has that annoying backwoods twang in the vocals ('Cruise' is still kind of awesome, though), Kenny Chesney is there to rip off Jimmy Buffett with alarming and shitty frequency, but outside of the Zac Brown Band, who the hell of this group has the serious songwriting chops to stand out and be remotely memorable? Say what you will about Garth Brooks, but at least the man had great songwriters (and he was a halfway decent songwriter himself) and he had the charisma to deliver the songs well - and that's why songs like 'Friends In Low Places' will never go away

The point that I'm trying to make here is that it doesn't tend to be vocal delivery or instrumentation that makes country songs stand out - almost unique amongst any genre of music, the songwriting and lyrics come into much higher prominence for singling out the greats. That's why Ronnie Dunn's 'Cost of Livin' is one of the best songs of 2011 - it wasn't because of the instrumentation, but because Dunn was singing a desperate song with a very desperate, uncompromising edge. It's one of the most raw and excellent country songs I've ever heard, and for the most part, it's because of the songwriting and subject matter.

In another case, let's compare three mixed-gender country acts: Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, and The Band Perry. Now let's make this clear: I both like and dislike songs from all of these bands. I think none of them are all that special or spectacular. But for me, I'm going to devote more time to talking and analyzing and ultimately thinking about The Band Perry over the other two, mostly because The Band Perry write very flawed but very interesting songs. Yes, 'If I Die Young' is shit, but I find it a lot more interesting and entertaining to talk about and thus it's more memorable compared to the middle-brow pablum that Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum keep shoveling out. Even the bad stuff that Lady Antebellum has released (like the execrable 'Just A Kiss') isn't as interesting as a song like 'Better Dig Two', mostly because The Band Perry is taking something of a risk. They're essentially the goth kids in the country scene with their obsession with death, and considering how much southern gothic imagery they co-opt, I find them more than a little amusing and kind of intriguing

And with the discussion of death filtered through a southern gothic aesthetic, we come to the female country singers - most of which have either co-opted Carrie Underwood's Beyonce-esque contempt for men with mixed results or fallen in line with the industry's traditional gender roles (Taylor Swift). To be honest, I've gotten more than a little sick of Carrie Underwood's schtick (as I said in my review of Orianthi's Heaven In This Hell that nobody cared about), but I prefer her fire-spitting to Taylor Swift's adolescence - at least it's some sign of maturity. 

But one of the more interesting country acts to come out in the wake of Carrie Underwood is former Pistol Annies' singer Miranda Lambert. Now, to be honest, I've always tended to drop her onto the B-list, mostly because for the past two years she's been making bland, not all that interesting country lacks a certain degree of depth or thought. But then she released an interesting little song called 'Mama's Broken Heart', which is a song where Lambert gets cheated on / dumped, and she has to balance her own grief-stricken rage with putting a polite friendly smile on to the public. It's a tough dichotomy to play, and Miranda Lambert plays it masterfully. 

But what I find interesting about it is the juxtaposition of societal expectations - because believe it or not, societal expectations play a huge role in country music. Keep in mind this is music often marketed solely to rural America, which has a very distinctive set of values and customs that don't really reflect those in the coastal cities - or in Canada. And while most of these societal expectations tend to be racist, sexist, homophobic, prejudiced, or just plain moronic, they're still expectations that genuinely good people in those rural areas live by. Sure, they're often expectations that reflect an America that wants to be in 1950 or 1980 (which wanted to pretend to be 1950), but people still live by them, and they are a marketing demographic. 

And here's what makes 'Mama's Broken Heart' so interesting - because it pushes the cruel double standard forced on women under those societal expectation into view. The fact that they're expected to be prim and proper 'Stepford' ladies, even in the face of their partners acting like pigs or leaving them. Now let's be fair here, the push behind Carrie Underwood would seem to suggest a more liberated mindset, but I don't quite buy it. To me, too much of Carrie Underwood's material comes across as too harsh and grating to be anything but a fantasy or a pose - you know, like how Beyonce only sounds convincing when she's angry like a man, but she's happily married to Jay-Z. Miranda Lambert, on the other hand, brings across that grief and rage and vulnerability in a way that Kelly Clarkson used to do and Adele perfected, and while most of 'Mama's Broken Heart' might seem like it's being played as a laugh, there's genuine sadness and anger in that song that makes it work better than you'd think, mostly because Lambert isn't the rail-thin knockout that Underwood is, or the fact that she's not quite as polished. I'm reminded a lot of Reba McEntire with Miranda Lambert on this track, and while she isn't quite as good as Reba, this is a good step in the right direction.

So on that topic, one should ask who wrote such a border-line transgressive (or at least out-of-the-ordinary) track for Lambert. Well, one of those songwriters is a young woman named Kacey Musgraves, who just released her major label debut album Same Trailer Different Park. 

An album that might just be one of the best goddamn albums of the year. Holy shit, did I not see this coming.

For those of you who have no idea who Kacey Musgraves is... well, join the crowd, because this girl came out of nowhere. According to her scant Wikipedia page, she was on some reality show Nashville Star and placed seventh in the fifth season. Then in 2012, she toured with Lady Antebellum in the UK, which probably gave her enough clout to sign with a major label and release her new album, which is now sitting at #1 on the Billboard Country charts. It's also interesting to note that her major label debut is not her first album - she's apparently released three albums independently (none of which I can find).

What it does say is that Musgraves has had some time to hone her craft, probably working out the amateur mistakes on her previous albums. And indeed when she comes on this album, she brings enough confidence and maturity to suggest a veteran of the industry. Her lyrics have an easy, almost effortless flow, her voice (while nothing spectacular) is well-trained, and her instrumentation is tight and melodic. And while this album does have a folk feel on a few tracks, with the stomping choruses and the occasional mandolin bits, it's smoothly integrated into the sound of the album. And while the instrumentation is nothing amazing or spellbinding, it's simple and reserved and confident enough to match her songs excellently.

But as I said above, the real star of country songs is the writing, and here, Kacey Musgraves knocks the ball clean out of the goddamn park. There is so much Musgraves gets right here that I'm a little shocked how on earth I've been able to tolerate other country acts - mostly because Musgraves makes it look so easy. There's a natural flow to her lyrics and poetry that lacks the jerky clumsiness of The Band Perry, or the amateurish stumbling of Taylor Swift. The rhymes aren't forced, the stanzas are clean and defined, there isn't stretching of syllables or cluttered verses - these are such simple things to get right, and the ease of which Musgraves gets them right raises the obvious question of why the hell the rest of the country scene keeps them wrong.

But really, that's just excellent craftsmanship, and all of that doesn't mean much if the songs don't have anything to say. Fortunately, Kacey Musgraves does have a lot to say, and one of the reasons why her album is so damn compelling is that it has an edge. Smuggled into the mainstream country music scene behind compelling, well-executed basics, Same Trailer Different Park might just be the single most acidic, vehement, and scathing indictment of societal expectations and traditional values in rural America I've ever seen from a country artist. Frankly, I'm more than a little amazed this album got released at all, because it takes the traditionalism of Nashville behind the woodshed and beats it with a machete.

Now there's a fine line to making this work in a commercially viable setting - hell, I'd argue one of the reasons the Dixie Chicks' biting attacks on the Bush administration never really worked for me was because they went over that line and compromised good music for their message. However, it wasn't just that - the Dixie Chicks didn't make an attempt to empathize with their audience, instead standing up and screeching through the megaphone (which is indeed how most of their songs sounded to me). Kacey Musgraves is smarter than that, and knows that if she wants to make any ideological points, she'll have to show that she's a part of the group. She has to sell convincingly that she grew up in that environment and empathizes with the people, rather than mocking or spoofing them. It's a matter of equality, rather than elevating herself above the group.

Let's make the comparison to another up-and-coming singer-songwriter that's been getting a lot of praise in the acoustic scene: Ed Sheeran. Now, I'll be blunt, I'm not the biggest fan of Sheeran's material (or indeed of much of the stuff in the white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar vein), but I can recognize talent. That said, I think I know why I like Kacey Musgraves a lot more than Sheeran, and that's because Musgraves gets it. Take Sheeran's biggest hit 'The A-Team', which is a decent song but always rings a little false to me because the subject matter is so diametrically opposed to Sheeran's execution. I'm sorry, but minimalist guitar doesn't really match the tale of a woman dying of crack addiction - it's too clean, it's doesn't feel real.

Compare to Kacey Musgraves' 'Merry Go 'Round', which is a somber, melancholic look at the systemic cracks in rural Americana, and Musgraves sells it like she's trapped in the same damn cycle like everyone else. By not separating herself, she imbues the track with more emotion and intensity, and it makes the style fit all the better. A song like 'Blowin' Smoke' (which is about cigarette addiction) feels all the more real because it sounds like the track came straight from a grungy pit of a diner where the television in the corner is blaring Jerry Springer. Once again, Musgraves shows empathy with audience while condemning the self-destructive behavior.

So let's make a comparison to another country singer-songwriter who built her entire fanbase off of empathy: Taylor Swift. But Musgraves beats Miss Swift hands down here, and mostly because Musgraves sounds so much more like an actual adult rather than the overgrown, immature teenager that Taylor seems to embody. Musgraves' 'Silver Lining' is about realizing that happiness has to be won with hard work and trouble, and her requisite kiss-off tracks 'Step Off' and 'Stupid' both have the humour and sharp sarcasm that make Musgraves seem a lot less cute, but none of the bitterness that fills Carrie Underwood's material. Her love/breakup songs are equally complex, with 'I Miss You' discussing how even when she's ready to meet someone new, in her heart she still misses her ex a bit. 'Keep It To Yourself' is a song directed to an ex she dumped, warning him away from her, and strangely she frames the song in a way so you can feel sympathy for both parties in the relationship. And with her ending track 'It Is What It Is', she writes about an utterly mundane relationship, where she and her partner get together to settle and fuck in a relationship they both know is doomed but are resigned to anyways. Even 'Dandelion', a song that might seem shallow on the surface, turns out to be a brutally sarcastic criticism of vapid, shallow relationships.

And I think it's about time I tell you that Kacey Musgraves is 24.

Yeah, I was just as surprised - Kacey Musgraves comes onto the scene with professionalism and maturity beyond her years - but if anything, it makes sense. If Ke$ha's music is directed at the party girls hunting for meaning, Kacey Musgraves' music is angled square at the country girls. She presents the same frank, blunt assessment of American culture that Harmony Korine did in Spring Breakers, but while Korine's future for my generation is dark and bloody, Musgraves has a much more optimistic outlook. She doesn't shy away from pointing out the endemic problems, but she also sees a way out by roundly ridiculing the stupid traditionalist instincts with a blunt honesty I found very refreshing. My favourite song off her album is 'Follow Your Arrow', a song that does just that and tells our generation to keep going forward and ignore society's crass judgmentalism. Is it a little corny? Well, sure, but this is country music - corniness isn't always a negative in this genre, and the fact Kacey Musgraves sells her message with humour, intellect, maturity, and a completely lack of ironic detachment really can resonate.

Same Trailer, Different Park is not a perfect album - there are a few bits that didn't quite work for me - but it's a damn, damn great one and easily in contention with Nick Cave's Push The Sky Away for one of the best albums of the year. I was blown out of the water by how smart, funny and insightful Kacey Musgraves was, and I am so happy I got a chance to listen to her. Forget Taylor Swift's most recent regurgitation - Kacey Musgraves is the country singer-songwriter that should be leading the field, because she bloody well deserves to be.

Budge up there a bit, Ke$ha - you've got some company and competition as the voice of my generation, and I can't say how happy I am to say that.

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