Monday, December 12, 2016

album review: 'honest life' by courtney marie andrews

So this has been entirely too long in coming... and yet it's almost fitting that we'd round out the end of the year with a record I had every expectation would be great. Hell, in a year full of strong country, especially in the indie scene, especially leaning towards folk, and especially coming from incredibly sharp female singer-songwriters, it's almost karmic that we circle back to a record like this for the end of the year.

And I had every expectation that this album would be great. In my research I couldn't find copies of Courtney Marie Andrews' entire discography, but what I did find was heartfelt, organic, melodic, and with a plainspoken power that was hard to deny... and yet the most some would every recognize her for was background work she did with Ryan Adams and Jimmy Eat World of all people. Of course, her voice is distinctive enough that she'd be recognizable even there - a lilting, slightly deeper and huskier voice that reminded me a little of Joni Mitchell or maybe Joanna Newsom early on before her tones got richer with age. And with this being her first record since 2013 and with the considerable amount of critical acclaim it has received, I had every expectation and hope that this album would be excellent at the very least - so was I right?

Man, I wish I was. Folks, I've had this album on repeat in between churning through my backlog for the past week, and I wish that I could say I loved it more. Make no mistake, it's definitely a good record, and against less impressive competition, I could see this maybe having a little more staying power for me... but something isn't quite clicking as deeply as I'd like here, and I think I finally understand what that is - a good record, but not a great one.

So let's start with the biggest positive right out of the gate: Courtney Marie Andrews herself - I've already spoken her praises at the beginning of this review, and they're all the more true here. Capable of expressive earnestness, considerable bitterness, and one of the most delicately powerful expressions of heartbreak by the time we get to the closing track 'Only In My Mind' - by far the best here - she doesn't exactly have huge power but the very intimate presentation means she doesn't need it, and the sparse backing vocals that show up for a bit of support do an ample job. And a lot of the instrumentation falls into comfortable territory as well - clean acoustic grooves against piano and pedal steel, some firmer bass, and the occasional organ welling up or electric solo. It's a pretty short listen, but the tempos make the songs feel longer and more languid, a little more elaborate to flesh out the melodies, which will sneak up on you more than anything. And there are some great accent moments - I love the piano chords that come up after the chorus of 'Rookie Dreaming', the deeper bass and guitar holding on 'Irene' that shift into minor tones on 'Table For One', the more straightforward pedal steel and country touches of 'How Quickly Your Heart Mends', and especially the piano and strings that flesh out 'Only In My Mind'. If I were to raise any complaints with the instrumentation, it'd be that many of these tracks feel a tad underwritten, especially for their tempo and vibe and that the more languid instrumental segments don't really do much to shift things up. And that's not even touching how the production to the majority of these songs can feel a tad cloying at points, a little too soft and rounded. And that's before you get songs like '15 Highway Lines', where the drum progression tries to build to a hook and it just feels a little messier than it should.

But this is where we have to talk about the lyrics and themes, and where I struggled most with this record - which you might think is odd, considering I previously stated it felt underwritten. But that's more because Honest Life for Courtney Marie Andrews is the sort of record I don't often hear these days, certainly not from someone younger than me: the 'settling down' story. It might start on the road and tours that take her around the world, but with the acknowledgement that the lifestyle is wreaking havoc on her personal life, she opts to find that special spot and land for a little while, because there's no place like home. Now let me start by saying that for the most part this record can hold this narrative together: 'Rookie Dreaming' shows how experience tempers one's chase of their dreams, 'How Quickly Your Heart Mends' has her showing up dressed to the nines to meet an old flame in a different town, presumably international, only to get stood up. So when the jukebox starts playing an old country song she gets up to dance with the rest of the drunks because what the hell else is she supposed to do. Hell, even 'Irene' has her imparting lessons to a fellow traveler, to chase those dreams but keep a good head on her shoulders. But by the time we hit the title track this record seems to be ready to settle in one spot and it starts picking up a pastoral quality that feels a tad too idealistic, even if it is contrasted with the grit of the road on songs like 'Table For One'. Hell, that's why 'Only In My Mind' works at all - she imagines the romance, only to realize that her own choices, flaws, and mistakes led to a lonely reality, and any forgiveness and reconciliation is only in her mind. That's potent stuff with real self-aware framing... but it's not consistent. 'Let The Good One Go' has her pining for an ex where she was hoping to see shades of grey in the breakup and hoping he'll call, but by the time you get to the final verse it reads as much more idealistic and naive than we know she is. And then there's the title track, full of references to how she wants to live that honest life despite doubts and human frailties and her own mistakes... but she never actually mentions what she might have done to not live that life, which is a glaring issue.

In fact, I'd probably prefer all of these songs to have a little more detail as a whole, but that highlights the oddness of Courtney Marie Andrews focusing on these themes to begin with. I don't doubt constant touring ages you, or that the 'settling down' theme doesn't have weight in country music - one of my favourite records of 2016, Southern Family, embraced many of those tropes. But that album backed it up with detail, or in the case of Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark brought the weight of years to their writing to highlight the complicated moral ambiguity of small town life and finding that place. Courtney Marie Andrews... she gets there in spots, but not consistently, and in comparison with other road albums like The Weight Of These Wings by Miranda Lambert, Honest Life doesn't have the same weathered texture and emotional scars that made it compelling. Again, I do like this album, but really only in moments where the detail comes through. More often than not, it doesn't quite get there for me, netting a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation but also that you check out records like No One's Slate Is Clean, which brought more detail and bite to her overall sound and ultimately rang as a little more compelling. But at the end of the day, I get the feeling that if Courtney Marie Andrews wants to settle down, it might not be for long, and in the mean time, you should check this out.

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