I have a complicated relationship with retro music.
Now that might seem a little strange coming from me, given how much the country indie scene loves to pull from old school classic country to update it with a modern touch. And if you look at the stuff I love from the genre over the past few years, the key word is 'update'. Don't get me wrong, I like my country standards, but I can always go back to those sounds, and my interest tends to wane if all I'm hearing is a recreation, not something otherwise fresh - draw on the past, not repeat it.
Now this has meant I've tended to be a little skeptical of the smooth jazz and rockabilly-inspired country that's grown popular over the past couple of years. I'm not saying it can't work - look at Lindi Ortega's Cigarettes And Truckstops for a prime example of co-opting the image and style to something far more compelling in blending its glam with grit - but at its most trying it can come across a little 'stagey', for lack of better words. Furthermore, if you've been listening to indie country for a while, this is ground that's been trod before - hell, that was one of my frustrations with Angel Olsen's MY WOMAN, even though in that case it was more blowback from all the hype.
But it was that review I was thinking about while gearing up to cover Cheryl Desere'e's self-titled debut. I had heard some of the buzz from this California artist and I had liked what I had initially heard going in, but I could definitely see some being taken more by her image and not the writing. And yet this wasn't an album of covers - we're dealing with original songs she wrote, and reportedly with a greater horn section to boot, so I was prepared to take this very seriously - so what did Cheryl Desere'e deliver?
Well, certainly a fascinating record, that's for sure, and the sort of project that actually gave me a fair bit more to think about than I had expected, because this record really is characterized by its contradictions. On the surface Cheryl Desere'e's self-titled debut might seem like your typical retro throwback traditional country record, complete with fiddles and steel guitar, but then there's the prominent horns and smooth jazz rhythms interjected to fit with Desere'e's smokier crooning... which all suggests a distinct old school vibe that's then placed against very smooth, clean modern production and writing that's much more grounded and borderline progressive than you'd expect. In an odd way it almost reminds me a little of Kacey Musgraves coming off of Pageant Material - not quite as refined and sharp, given that it is a debut, but there's definitely potential here, I think.
And the place where I think we should start are on lyrics, themes, and content, because this is easily the biggest high point of this record and the point that will probably surprise the most people. As you might expect you get your selection of songs smacking back people who only consider Cheryl Desere'e a pretty face - 'Eye Candy' and to a lesser extent 'Keep My Name Off Your Lips' and 'Stage Door Jenny' deal directly in this territory - but the framing tends to get significantly more complex when you dig into the details. 'Stage Door Jenny', for instance, has her going out looking for a fun hookup, but it's tempered by acknowledgements of having 'the most to prove and the most to lose' and hoping 'her feet can outrun her mouth', and 'Last Night's Face' shows the aftermath of a hookup, driven by the raw heat of the moment. But where things get interesting is when Desere'e ventures into tougher, more morally complex territory - hell, right from the opening track 'Pillow Talkin' she and her partner are both cheating, and she's very frank that they keep it on that level and not think it's more than it is. Then you get the burnt-out embers on 'Rabbit Hole', where she knows her old ex who is also a musician is singing songs about her just like she is him, and she's tempted back towards that rabbit hole, or 'Loving Beyond My Means', where she grew up and moved on from the relationship, but she's still not quite over things, or 'Sin Eater', where it's clear this guy, ex or otherwise, resents her for having her life together but always calls when he needs help at his lowest... and yet she feels that obligation to go out and get him. It's telling how much of this record is bucking against emotions and traditions, be they tied to family or span back deeper, and the drama comes in having to make those hard choices, or not even having a real choice. 'Diamond Valley RV' is a prime example, where her mother moves out east to be close to part of her family and ends up counting pennies in a trailer park, waiting for the old man to croak so she might get her furniture out of layaway and get a real home, and 'Wildfire' paints a pretty bleak tale of a mother and daughter separated by the system - either the courts or rehab or a hospital, it's not quite clear, but the writing is plainspoken enough to hit hard. The biggest gutpunch comes on the closing duet of 'Don't Look Now' with Benjamin Douglas, again portraying cheating, but this time with a husband and wife both pursuing their own indiscretions after the fires died out, and praying to keep things quiet between them for the kids' sake. The frankness and emotional honesty of the writing reminds me a lot of what Mark Chesnutt did with Tradition Lives earlier this year, and that's some high praise indeed.
But it also highlights where the biggest contradictions start to form on this record, because when we get to the instrumentation and production it's an interesting blend. Again, even more than Courtney Marie Andrews this is traditional country in its melodic construction and flow - acoustic grooves holding up a mix full of pedal steel and fiddle holding the melody, with banjo and saloon piano to boot against the richer, oaky guitar lines. The percussion is sparse, the tones are full, the melodic interplay is solid, you could easily transplant most of this material back to the mid-40s or 50s in country... and then you add the horns and the tunes that were clearly inspired by smoky smooth jazz. Now it's not a mix or blend that surprises me, but what did catch my ear was the choice of production - despite moments where it might seem lo-fi, the mix nearly always resolves into a much cleaner but still organic sound - despite the old-fashioned melodic construction this album doesn't have the weathered age and texture many of its Dave Cobb-produced contemporaries do. And I'm a little mixed whether or not this is a good thing: on the one hand, it keeps this record from not feeling like a throwback, but it also doesn't quite capture the same atmosphere and mood, and it can't help but feel a tad more 'stagey', even though I'd make the argument the actual instrumental pickups themselves are very well done, particularly on the horn and organ lines. And there are instrumental moments I really dug, especially when Desere'e lets the guitar tones pick up a little more depth like on 'Diamond Valley RV' or 'Rabbit Hole' against the pedal steel, or the rollicking groove against the harmonica on 'Eye Candy', or the horn interplay on the bridge of 'Keep My Name Off Your Lips'. But I also get the feeling the mix blending could be a bit better, especially when you have songs that have a little more organic depth like 'Wildfire' and 'Sin Eater'.
And part of this comes back to Cheryl Desere'e herself, and I'm reminded a lot of Whitney Rose in bringing that sultry, smoky jazz-inspired vocal performance with impeccable poise and restraint. But it can be an awkward fit against some of this production, which rarely gives her a lot of help. The touches of backing vocals on 'Diamond Valley RV' give her thinner tones a little more body, and I wish this was done more often because on some of the twangier, thicker compositions she can sound a little overwhelmed, especially when she moves into her higher register. And it's not helped by the feeling that her higher register isn't quite as expressive as her low-to-midrange - these are some emotionally complicated songs, and I would have liked to see her vocal deliver capture more of the nuance the lyrics convey. And part of that is an issue of mix balance - if her vocals had a bit more volume or fullness in the mix, I think they'd probably come through better. But while I've seen some be a little dissatisfied opposite Benjamin Douglas' very raspy and textured delivery on 'Don't Look Now', but if anything it only accentuated the central conceit of the song, how they were very different people and were now seeking passion in very different places, and yet they still have enough chemistry to see how this could have worked in the past.
But overall, I like this album. It's not without its flaws - I think a few songs could have used a little more muscle or distinguishing tones, it can start to run together a bit, and that dropped rhyme on the third verse of 'Last Night's Face' really does stick out like a sore thumb to me - but I'm inclined to give this the benefit of the doubt as a debut with a distinctive sound and style. I'd probably slot this record comfortably between Kacey Musgraves' Pageant Material and Whitney Rose's Heartbreaker Of The Year in terms of its style and sound - not quite as refined as either record, but definitely with the writing chops to get there. As such, for me it's a 7/10 and a recommendation if you like any of the other country records I mentioned here. But even if you don't, this has an old-fashioned flair and style without feeling like a deliberate throwback, and the sort of serious chops to back it up. Nice work, Cheryl Desere'e - it might have taken me too long to get to this, but I'm glad I did.