Friday, August 14, 2015

album review: 'faded gloryville' by lindi ortega

You know, considering how much indie country I cover and especially on the Canadian side, I'm a little astounded I've never covered Lindi Ortega. Maybe it was poor timing - her last album Tin Star dropped in late 2013 where I was still very much getting a handle on my reviews - but let's make up for lost time and discuss one of the more fascinating indie country acts you'll hear. Born in Toronto, she spent most of the 2000s trying to land a deal through a selection of independently released albums and EPs before signing with Interscope through Cherrytree in 2008... and if you know anything about Cherrytree and a rising star named Lady Gaga affiliated with that label, it was perhaps the worst possible timing for her. It wasn't long before Lindi returned to the indie scene and signed with Last Gang - the label behind K-OS, Lights, and Metric - which proved to be a much better fit and gave her more flexibility to drop records.

And starting with Little Red Boots in 2011, she did just that. Blending a dusty brand of alternative country with a vintage rockabilly image and jazz-cabaret inspired vocals, Lindi had a theatricality that might have felt broad if it wasn't for the great textured production and sharp writing. She followed it with the dustier snarl and general all-around awesomeness of Cigarettes & Truckstops in 2012, which started earning her some serious critical acclaim - and for good reason, as Lindi's sultry vocals had a lived-in reality that belied the smoky glam and dark lyrics. Lana Del Rey wishes she could appropriate vintage flair this well, it's stunning. She followed it with Tin Star in 2013 working with producer Dave Cobb, and while he definitely brought his brand of vintage production that worked wonders for the atmosphere, I missed some of the smoky, noir darkness and ragged edge which was replaced with a gentler, more neotraditional sound. And frankly, with Dave Cobb handling production for her newest album Faded Gloryville, I expected more of the same. And of course it'd be good, but would it reach the greatness she hit with Cigarettes & Truckstops?

Unforutnately, it didn't. In fact, I'd argue it's another step away from her best work and even from Tin Star. It's still a good album, don't get me wrong, but it's starting to seem like Lindi Ortega's more interesting years are behind her in terms of composition and writing, and a killer voice can only excuse it for so long.

So that's admittedly a tough charge to make, so let's start with the obvious positives: Lindi Ortega herself. The woman has a gorgeous voice with a ton of charisma and personality and while I do prefer her more fiery, rough-edged cuts, she can handle the balance between theatrical personality and self-aware reality incredibly well. And considering how much more of this album delves into soul midway through with songs like the Bee Gees cover 'To Love Somebody', it's no surprise she can nail this. What does feel out of place immediately are the backing vocals courtesy of John Paul White, the producer that handles the midpoint songs of this record, mostly because his presence doesn't fit the lyrical tone or messages whatsoever but more because he can't match her personality in any way. 

And this takes us to the first major shift with this album: production. Much to my surprise, Dave Cobb only handled the production on three songs in the back half of the record, including the album highlight 'I Ain't The Girl'. The rest were done by Canadian guitarist and producer Colin Linden and John Paul White, the latter who was one half of the duo The Civil Wars. And I might as well get this out of the way: I've never liked The Civil Wars, finding much of their songwriting token and the production lukewarm and tepid. To be fair, this never really happens for Ortega, as much of her production maintains that burnished vintage feel with liquid guitar tones fleshing out the background with sparse percussion and hints of acoustic groove up front. What White does introduce besides his backing vocals are the horns - and sure, it's a cute idea, but ultimately it ends up feeling a little gaudy for these sorts of songs and they don't really compliment the organ all that well. Granted, the larger problem is that most of this album doesn't really move beyond gentle, slow-to-midtempo numbers that have texture, but rarely do enough to add a propulsive groove or snarl to the low end for a foundation. It's one of the reasons I liked 'Tell It Like It Is' - not only are the guitars a little rougher, they can actually add enough distinctive melody to support Ortega. It's also why Dave Cobb's rougher, more country edges are such a better fit for her - even if he's not quite giving her the same grit he'd give Sturgill Simpson, it's at least something. And hell, even the Bee Gees cover had a bassline with some tightness behind it...

Which takes us to the writing, arguably the area where this album stumbles the hardest. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad - although that frying-pan/egg line on 'Run Amuck' feels imported straight from that terrible PSA and is just cringeworthy - but for a good half of this album it feels lacking in the detail and personality that made Ortega's earlier work so striking and memorable to me. Part of it is a choice of themes: much of this album feels firmly lodged in place, resigned to living in that faded gloryville where love will go unrequited, bad relationships will remain static and never evolve to love or break, and success seems like a distant memory. Which, yes, probably is anecdotal and can be a source of potent drama, but this album doesn't nearly get its hands as dirty as Ortega has done in the past, not bringing the same raw grime or self-awareness. There are shining moments: 'I Ain't The Girl' shows Ortega genuinely regretful for breaking the heart of the straight-laced yuppie who she's just not into, even if he could provide her a more stable life and especially considering the guys she's drawn to on the rest of this album seem to be as reckless and capricious as her - and she knows it. And yet at the same time, we get more than our fair share of songs like 'Ashes' and the title track and 'Someday Soon' and 'When You Ain't Home' or even ''Run Amuck' that set the stage for the drama, for Ortega to do more, move on from a bad breakup or initiate it herself or even tell more of a story... and then nothing really happens, almost as if she's resigned to things never changing, so why try and fix it? And yeah, I get the resignation when it comes to career - it's why the title track works, even if it is a more abstract and not quite as good version of 'Tin Star' - but with relationships it's shakier to get real sympathy from the audience, especially when it doesn't really display a dramatic arc. After all, Pearl Jam only needed to write one version of 'Better Man', and it at least went deeper than these. Even 'Half Moon', probably the most lyrically developed song on this album really is more for painting a picture of Lindi Ortega herself through the comparison, and even then it feels lacking in dimension.

And that's when it hit me: the vintage production, the distinctive rockabilly and classic country vibe and even style of songwriting, this is an album that on some level is attempting to recapture those old sounds and realizing it's not quite working the way it used to. Ortega has gone on record stating that this album is about coming to grips with that fact, and you get snippets of that insight in her delivery, but the writing itself really doesn't support it, mostly because we don't get those lyrical moments where she does pick up and move on. All of that leaves Faded Gloryville stuck staring into its own mirror, a throwback desperately yearning for more, but never quite taking the step to get there. Now it's a damn good one, which is why it's getting a light 7/10 from me... but I can't help feeling disappointed with this, because I know Ortega can do better. If you're interested or more enamored with the atmosphere, you'll probably like this album, but to misquote an excellent country album from this year, 'somebody long ago would have found El Dorado / so luck to you, cowgirl, I'm moving on'.

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