Monday, September 26, 2016

album review: 'mud' by whiskey myers

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one.

See, I don't talk a lot about southern rock in this series, basically because for as much as I like the sound I tend to be more of a fan of either country or outright blues rock. Don't get me wrong, the blend in the middle tends to be appealing, but it's also a narrow fit, and too often I've seen country acts go here to simply add muscle, or rock bands to add flavour - or snag some easy marketing from country - without the heavier focus on songwriting you'd like to see. Couple it with the occasional bit of belligerent machismo or southern pandering you can see creeping into the writing, and let's just say that there's a significant swathe of the genre that can kind of turn me off.

Of course, there are exceptions, and in the waning months of 2016, we're going to talk about two of them, the two southern rock acts that are consistently viewed in recent years as the leaders in the format. The first is the Georgia-based Blackberry Smoke, and fans from last year probably remember that I covered their last album Holding All The Roses and am planning to review their upcoming release in mid-October. The other band is the group we're going to be talking about today: Whiskey Myers. Texas band, a little younger, and unlike Blackberry Smoke who have toured and worked with the Zac Brown Band and Eric Church, they've remained consistently independent. And yet if I'm being completely honest, I wouldn't entirely consider myself a fan. Yes, Cody Cannon has a tremendous voice and Cody Tate is one hell of a guitarist, but I found myself wishing I could like Firewater and Early Morning Shakes a lot more than I did. Part of it was the writing, which did occasionally slide towards the issues I spoke on earlier - especially 'Ballad Of A Southern Man' on Firewater - but on Early Morning Shakes even with Dave Cobb's production I found myself lukewarm to the project at best. But hey, Cobb's production has only gotten better and with the buzz suggesting that this was a much rougher, gritty record, I was looking forward to seeing how that edge could materialize. So I finally decided to check out Mud by Whiskey Myers - what did we get?

Honestly... I hate to say it, but I'm lukewarm on this project too. Look, maybe Whiskey Myers just isn't for me, but with listen after listen I'm convinced that there's a part of me that should like this band... and yet with every single listen, the problems were all the more glaring, to the point where I have no clue where I'd place it with the rest of their discography. It's not a bad or disagreeable listen - if you like southern rock, particularly on the rougher edges, you'll probably like a lot of this, but Mud should be better and I'm genuinely frustrated that it isn't.

And the place we need to start is the production and instrumentation, where you could make the argument this is easily Whiskey Myers' most dense and eclectic production to date. The backing female soul singers are all the more prevalent in matching Cody Cannon, the guitar tones are nastier and damn near sludge on tracks like 'Frogman' and 'Mud', the fiddles are more ragged on songs like 'Hank' and 'On The River', and even the pianos seem to have a hint of a rougher pickup on 'Stone' and the album standout 'Trailer We Call Home'. And when you factor in the strong melodic grooves that Cody Tate's guitars bring in - there's a solid bounce to 'Deep Down In The South' and a pretty good midtempo flow to 'Some Of Your Love' - you've got all the ingredients to a solid southern rock project. The problem is in the mixing and production, where just like on Early Morning Shakes, it appears Dave Cobb has stumbled. And believe me, I'm as stunned as anyone, if not more - this guy has been slamming them out of the part for nearly three years now, but his take on Whiskey Myers' louder, rougher brand of southern rock is not clicking with me at all, and it's entirely an issue of foundation. I have no idea if the bass drum and bass guitar were inadequately micced or if this was a problem in post, but for as good as the melodic grooves are in the midrange, they'd be significantly stronger and have more presence if the bass could come through and add some real meat. It leads to tracks that should be scuzzier and thicker and rougher feel like they're lacking heft to really distinguish the melodic textures, which instead get caught up competing with each other in an overloaded midrange. And when you also consider how much of the pickups are going for a live feel - especially the vocals - without a defining line to anchor the mix it can feel sloppy in a way that doesn't reflect the composition. 

And it's not even an issue of being overmixed - they bring in horns on 'Lightning Bugs And Rain' and namecheck the Muscle Shoals sound, because of course they did, and they come through well - but without the grooves having an anchor to support the rest of the sound, it forces them to compete with the full-force vocals and organ line and additional guitars and it undercuts both your hooks and grooves. Granted, it's not helped by Cody Cannon's delivery - he's got a ton of presence but not always a lot of subtlety, and for a track like 'Stone' which begins as a piano ballad, I'm left wondering whether it made sense for him to belt when supposedly his heart was feeling like stone - you'd think that'd inspire him to underplay the song. And it's not like he isn't capable either - 'Trailer We Call Home' is plenty stripped back and it works just fine - but more often than not he's contributing to that wall of sound and it isn't always to his benefit. And it also hurts the guitar solos - I appreciate the shift in gear on a compositional level to give Tate's guitar some important stress, but when his own guitar pickup can lack some low-end, the solos feel more underwhelming than they should.

So okay, what about the writing - it's not always held to high standards in southern rock compared to country, but does it help here? Well, yes and no - mostly because for as skilled as they are in injecting detail to flesh out the picture, the stories themselves don't often rise beyond cliche. Both 'Stone' and 'Hank' fall into traditional touring song territory, both kind of antisocial and the latter braggadocious, which of course comes through again on the album's weakest track 'Deep Down In The South', which is the sort of anthem that Whiskey Myers could write in their sleep. Then there are the love songs 'Lightning Bugs And Rain' and 'Some Of Your Love', both of which feel kind of thin compared to 'Trailer We Call Home', which shows a relationship for a couple struggling to get by on the edge of poverty with the sort of detail that feels heartbreakingly real. That reality also works for 'Frogman', speaking from the perspective of a Marine deployed in the Middle East who'd rather be home fishing, and the grime of the song fits the world-weary writing that's devoid of politics. Hell, the most political content comes through on the title track with its southern isolationist streak, but even then I'm inclined to give it a pass because it's actually willing to get bloody in its tale of a desperately man struggling to hold his family land against his creditors - it's a nasty song, but it's honestly framed and that has weight. And yet it's still counterbalanced by the ramshackle 'Good Ole Days' at the very end, mixed and written like a campfire song that is probably the brightest moment on the album.

But as a whole... again, I wanted to like this a lot more. Whiskey Myers is a talented group, and while there are quirks of the southern rock genre that I don't like, I've long accepted that's my issue and not theirs. But this is music that should feel thicker and heavier - it's got the texture, but not enough of the meat, and as much as I like Dave Cobb, maybe he's not the right fit for the band. Because for me, this is a strong 6/10 and a recommendation for southern rock fans... but I'm not really loving this. Give it a listen if you're curious, but otherwise, I wouldn't call this essential.

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