Monday, June 22, 2015

album review: 'pageant material' by kacey musgraves

When I first heard Same Trailer, Different Park in 2013, the major label debut from Kacey Musgraves, I was blown out of the water. Here was a woman whose love and knowledge for old-school classic country allowed her to load her songs with grounded, honest maturity and progressive tendencies that were anathema to country radio, even now. Coupled with just being a damn great songwriter both in terms of technical craftsmanship and selling it with real emotive presence, she won the hearts of a ton of critics, and scooped up some well-deserved Grammys in one of the few examples of that show getting it right.

But despite great sales, Kacey Musgraves is not a radio star, and in an era screaming out for women in country music, Kacey's lack of mainstream success frustrated a lot of people, including some of the critics who supported her. They could easily point the finger at the fact her brand of country is not the type that gets airplay, especially considering the consolidation of country radio places more of it in the hands of petulant assholes like Bobby Bones, who Kacey refused to give the time of day and paid the price for it, but they decided to go deeper. They wanted the tone and writing and instrumentation to be more modern or strident or at the very least less girlish or presumably immature. In short, they wanted Kacey Musgraves to be country music's new feminist savior in the vein of a 'Beyonce' or something, be more transformative and drive away the analysts who don't know the difference between correlation and causation and that say women are the tomatoes in country music's salad.

And from the beginning, I've never bought that was what Kacey Musgraves wanted, and I'd argue such aspirations took away from the greatest part of her appeal: populism. Sure, she loved decidedly uncool classic country, but her writing style and content was always grounded in the fact she was part of the same crushing system as her audience, not trying to lead it. Her material could be girlish in tone and writing, but it only emphasized by contrast wisdom beyond her years, and disguise how deeply her words could cut in a country where 'Girl Crush' by Little Big Town was nearly forced off the radio because it supposedly promoted a lesbian relationship. And by framing her material as more matter-of-fact and accepted, I'd argue her material worked in a subtler and more effective way than any amount of incendiary firespitting - anthems are nice, but they need humanity and nuance to have real punch.

So when I heard that Kacey Musgraves' newest release would be called Pageant Material, I was actually really excited. Taking her brand of progressive views to traditional southern views of femininity might require she play things with more subtlety, but it didn't mean the punch wouldn't be there... or at least I hoped that was the case. Was I right?

Okay, I want to stress that yes, while Pageant Material is, in my opinion, a weaker record than Same Trailer, Different Park, it's still damn, damn good... it's just not at the same level, and I can easily tell you why. And the crazy thing is that I can totally see why some people will absolutely adore this album more than the last, and that's because Kacey Musgraves is still obscenely talented as a composer, singer, and lyricist - it's just that the subject matter she chose and her method of presenting most of it isn't quite as interesting or gripping to me. I still respect the hell out of her as an artist and there's still songs on this record I reckon are near her best... just not the album as a whole.

So where did things slip? Well, to start we need to consider Kacey Musgraves herself. Many critics have already drawn the comparison between her work and that of more classic country in the 60s and 70s, and with this record she certainly proves that she has the voice for it, able to balance theatrical camp with down-home realism pretty effectively, with a thick dollop of sweetness to cut any sting from her words... provided there was any. Yeah, we'll get to this more in a minute, but the biggest change in focus for this record comes in the choice to pursue more of the relaxed hazy love songs that would be corny as hell if Kacey wasn't a performer who could sell them as genuine. There's an organic expressive power to her vocals that plays in a subtler range than most belters, and yet she's got enough feistiness to back it up to prove she's no cooing balladeer.

And the instrumentation and production supports that change in tone, with thicker strings, steel guitars, and a denser backing mix adding a shimmering opulence to many of these songs that the stripped back, rickety nature of most of her previous record. It's not that the grit and texture isn't here - the banjos and acoustic guitars add great texture to ground the softer, more melodic and graceful instrumentation - but it's nowhere near as prominent or sharp. And while the flightier nature of Same Trailer, Different Park came in songs so airy they felt insubstantial, tracks like the languid whistles, strings and slowed Spanish guitar flourishes of 'High Time', or gentle acoustic moments of 'Late To The Party' or the aching slow grace of the waltz cadence with the steel guitars of 'Fine' have more density, and if you close your eyes you could easily imagine them sung on a Broadway stage. Hell, most of this album has an odd sort of theatricality to it - from the strikingly on-the-nose and hilarious title track that has a pretty damn good drum timbre and traditional country rollick, the soap opera whispers of 'This Town' thanks to the lower guitar tones, to the broad folksy nature of 'Biscuits', 'Family Is Family', and 'Cup Of Tea', you can easily construct a faux Golden-Age musical tying these songs together. Granted, the greatest strength of Same Trailer, Different Park was how goddamn real it felt and sounded - and to be fair, Kacey brought a fair chunk of that too. The slightly ragged strings on 'Somebody To Love', the frustrated melancholy of 'Miserable' where you can hear every squealing pluck of the guitars, the great richer background strums that anchor the low-end of 'Good 'Ol Boys Club', and the surprisingly contemporary feel of 'Die Fun' where Kacey's shaky desperation slips between the cracks of a song you'd think glorifies living fast and hard and yet aches with a darker sadness that I wish infused more of this record. Hell, if all of this album's a stage, the hidden track 'Are You Sure', a duet with Willie Nelson, reveals the stage as a shabby one in a small-town bar, and the rougher tones of the instrumentation, in the guitars and especially the solos, definitely seals that picture and almost single-handedly gives this album some real poignant pathos.

And yet, that's subtext not really supported by the text, and this is where we have to talk about lyrics. And I'll be honest: for what Kacey Musgraves was trying to do, I reckon she nailed it. She aimed to write softer, more reserved material, more love songs in the vein of the classic country she adores - and she nails this. In terms of technical construction and flow, Kacey Musgraves has a way with meter and cadence that is exceptionally strong, and you can always count on her material to have a richness in detail and texture that show it comes from a real place. Sure, the title track isn't anything that John Oliver hasn't torn into with greater detail regarding the warped world of pageant culture, but Kacey brings an exasperated flair to that song of having lived it that's almost screaming for a video to have child actors and star Melissa Peterman as one of the mothers. Even though I don't like the implication that everyone has at least tried to cheat on 'Biscuits', the song's still so damn well-written that I can't hate it. The writing alone means that songs like the frustrations on 'Family Is Family', the attempt to come back to roots on 'Dime Store Cowgirl', or the gossipy tight-knit nature of 'This Town' are redeemed. And that's before we get tracks like 'Somebody To Love' cutting into the double standards we all hold for ourselves that ring just as true and poignant. 

But here's the issue I take with this album, and the reason why Same Trailer, Different Park hits me so much harder: a sense of drama. If you go back to that last record, the reason why even the lighter tracks like 'Follow Your Arrow' hit home because they were flipping off an establishment in country that had every reason to come down hard on her. There was a sense of recklessness packaged without enough poise to slip past censors, or subject matter that was so real and desperate that even when presented with a smile, it was a weary one filled with resignation. This album doesn't really go for that territory, and while it might go down easier for some audiences, there isn't really enough subtext to add a kick to most of this material. And in some cases, I was just waiting for the moment where songs like 'This Town' revealed how small town camaraderie revealed its darker edge or 'Fine' showed how the guy who Kacey's waiting for isn't coming back because he's cheating or dead overseas or just gone... and those moments didn't come and I'm left feeling she's playing them straight - the subtext might encapsulate some of it, but the text doesn't really back it up. And that's fine, sure - there's not a bad song on this record, and there's a sincerity behind them that sells the performance damn well - but when you place them in contrast with the moments with real drama like on the title track or 'Miserable' or the subtext of 'Die Fun', or even the anger against the entrenched system on 'Good 'Ol Boys Club' with a none-too-subtle barb thrown at Big Machine, they don't have the same impact for me. 

In short, the word that I get with this album is comfortable - you could argue it was a risk for Kacey to go in this direction instrumentally towards more classic country, but the songwriting takes less chances. And yet I can't say that the songs she did write are bad by any stretch of the mind from a compositional, songwriting, or performance standpoint - a little corny, sure, but I can easily tolerate that. I guess for me love songs hit harder when I feel there's more at stake, and placid contentment doesn't really give me the same punch. Hell, if she had more songs that went in the direction of 'Pageant Material' that gave her the excuse to add more bite to songs with opulent production, I would have cheered. But this... while it is still damn, damn great, I guess I hold Kacey to pretty high standards and it's not quite as powerful as her first, and it's getting a light 8/10 from me. Definitely a recommendation, definitely worth your time, especially if you were looking for a softer side from her, and if this is the direction that Kacey wants to follow her arrow, all the power to her. I just wish there was a little more smoke and grit hidden in the pageant behind the crown.

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