Saturday, January 28, 2017

album review: 'puxico' by natalie hemby

So I've talked a fair bit in the past about the 'Nashville songwriting machine', the list of names that you'll see crop up again and again if you dig through the liner notes of mainstream country. And while for a while I tended to have something of an allergic reaction to this industry... well, on some level I get it. For a mainstream public who is can't stand major change and would recoil from most auteur-driven music, you need people behind the scenes to help fill time on the radio, or at the very least enough songs to fit albums cranked out every few years.

But here's the thing: with the recent upheaval and swings back towards neotraditional and indie country, you're not just seeing a fair few artists grab hold of writing duties for themselves, but several long-time veterans who put in their time behind the scenes step out into the spotlight. The big name, of course, is Chris Stapleton who released Traveller in 2015, but go a year earlier and you'd see Eric Paslay, or a year later and you'd get Lori McKenna and her spell-binding record The Bird And The Rifle. And now one of the newest artists to step to the forefront is Natalie Hemby, most well-known for her affiliations with Miranda Lambert, Sunny Sweeney, Little Big Town, and a fair few of the more contemplative and borderline experimental side of the Nashville sound that came in the aftermath of bro-country. And while there are a few duds on that list, there's also a fair amount of quality, which left me intrigued enough to check out her debut record Puxico, named for her grandfather's hometown in Missouri. And I wasn't sure what to expect - normally songwriters who have worked behind the scenes for a while before going solo are not the most striking performers, but that's where writing can do a lot of heavy lifting, and I have no qualms with that whatsoever - hell, more often than not I'd prefer it. So what did we find in Puxico?

Well, we got the sort of conceptual debut that was generally pleasantly enjoyable, the sort of record so committed to capturing a very specific mood and feel and sense of place that it can become pretty damn engrossing when you dig in. I'd hesitate to call this a great record - I think there are a few missteps that hold it back from resonating as deeply as I would hope - but not only is it very close, especially for a debut project, I can definitely see this record connecting with its target audience much more strongly.

And I want to start with the themes and tones on this record, mostly because so much of this record's resonance comes from that sense of place and time: namely, the sort of isolated small town you'd inevitably see scattered across the United States, particularly in the south. These are the towns where everything seems to run a little slower and heavier, a little rough and dirty around on the edges, where nothing quite seems to change except when everything seems to change. The most common metaphors and symbols on this record are circular, like ferris wheels - everything coming back around, a certain lingering eternity where the same stories are told and never forgotten. Now small town America is a very common topic in country, but Natalie Hemby's approach to the subject is much more impressionistic in the writing - the stories are more abstract, the details start to blur together, and coupled with the hazier production gives you the impression she's going for more of a feel than a direct narrative. And look, I'm no small town guy - I'm a city boy through and through, I can look out the window of my apartment and see a wall of bricks, and if I'm looking to go into the country, I'm going into the wild where humanity vanishes. My point is that small town America or Canada are never cultural myths I've put much stock in, which means that it takes a country songwriter with real talent to suck me into this sort of story - and to her credit, Hemby scores a couple really powerful moments here. The sepia-toned love story of 'Lovers On Display', the flooded out countryside on the cloudy roads of 'Cairo, IL', to especially the long shadows of memory that fill 'This Town Still Talks About You' that show how one who does leave to 'go places' can hold a distinct place in that small town's story for far longer than you'd ever think. And as it's implied on songs like 'I'll Remember How You Loved Me', while you might remember only those you loved, those small towns never really forget. Now all of that being said, for as much as this record captures that small town feel, I wish it did more with it, as a few songs here can feel a little underdeveloped and a tad insular. It's not exactly a great thing this record starts with 'Time-Honored Tradition', which highlights how people just don't quite understand or appreciate it, and songs like 'Worn' and 'Ferris Wheel' feel a little basic in their overall ideas, points where this record could say more and strangely doesn't. And I'm not asking for the sort of incisive commentary that Kacey Musgraves delivers about small town America, but what holds the writing back here from what Brandy Clark or Lori McKenna are delivering is a lack of fuller scope. For sure there is wistful melancholy in the margins, so why not flesh it out, or aim for a modern framing that makes the juxtaposition all the sharper?

Granted, when you take a look at the production and instrumentation, I'm not at all surprised she doesn't go in that direction, mostly because Hemby is aiming for a blurrier, slightly weathered style in her pickups that doesn't really have sharp edges. Whenever she's singing there's multi-tracking or touches of reverb to smooth and deepen the richness in her tone. The liquid acoustic guitar tones are layered to build and accentuate the melodies in the pedal steel, hints of organ and electric smolder, with the squeals of the strums lending this record a lot of really rich, warm texture and a surprising amount of gentle groove to songs like 'Loves On Display', the deeper roil of 'I'll Remember How You Loved Me' with accents of piano, and especially the breezier guitar layering on 'Return'. Hell, if case/lang/veirs does not cover 'Return' at some point I'll be amazed, because with the tight vocal layering, lingering blend of guitar texture, and phenomenal hook - Hemby's really got a knack for subtly brilliant melodic hooks on songs like 'Grand Restoration' or 'This Town Still Talks About You' - it's right up their alley. And that's before you get songs like 'Cairo, IL', which with the deeper acoustics echoing over a huge mix feels like a cut that should ended up on Miranda Lambert's The Weight Of These Wings, and likely one of the better songs. Now I wouldn't say the production is perfect here - the percussion and handclaps can feel a little stiff and programmed, I'd wish they were blended a little better, and you can definitely make the argument this record by playing to a very midtempo vibe could use a little more rollicking energy, but I'm not going to deny that slower, more contemplative sound was part of the point, even if it does make a record that's only just over a half hour feel a surprising amount longer.

But as a whole... I have to say, I'm still a little on the fence about this as a debut. The sonic backdrop and subtle grooves and sticky hooks are enticing, and at its best moments there's some real poignant power. And yet at the same time it feels insular and self-contained in a way that doesn't feel self-satisfied but does feel a little too safe. But to be fair to Natalie Hemby, this is a debut with easily more texture and well-balanced impressionistic writing to stick with me pretty well, and it's not her fault that I'm stuck covering this record later than I'd like in the immediate aftermath of some seriously asinine foreign policy south of the border where an insular picture of small town America seems quaint but myopic. And from everything I can tell, Hemby is looking to more universal themes and simply using the imagery and tones to set up the story, that's certainly how this writing comes across. And I do get the feeling this record will hold up, so I'm leaning on the side of positive and giving this a very, very light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. It's on the cusp of greatness, folks, and for a slice of excellently produced and beautiful indie country, this is something you'll want to hear, so definitely check it out.

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