Sunday, April 22, 2018

album review: 'liberty' by lindi ortega

So I've talked before about narrative-driven concept records in country music, and while you'd think they'd be more common given the genre's penchant for telling stories... look, I can barely say that with a straight face anymore, especially in the checklist-driven mainstream scene. But even outside of that, for a country artist to take a real risk and build a coherent, multi-part narrative over an entire project... that requires a level of ambition, forethought, and oftentimes budget that can be daunting for any act, especially in the indie scene.

But that wasn't going to stop Lindi Ortega this time. After she broke out in 2012 with the excellent Cigarettes & Truckstops that won her a ton of justifiable critical acclaim, most of which carried into her 2013 follow-up Tin Star, I had the feeling that she was on the cusp of really taking at least the indie scene by storm, if not more. And yet while I mostly liked 2015's Faded Gloryville, it was also clear that her vintage, rockabilly-infused country lane was starting to lose its luster in the face of an increasingly oversaturated scene and songs that just didn't rise to her best... and beyond all of that, there's just not a lot of money in that brand of indie country, and Nashville is an expensive city. So she left it altogether, came back to Canada, and set out to make her most ambitious project to date, putting aside the rockabilly tones for something grander and rougher, pulling on spaghetti western bombast like that of Ennio Morricone for the gritty melodrama to come. Three acts, fifteen tracks, with songs in Spanish and English blending mariachi with her smoky blend of noir and country rock, I've been wanting to cover this for weeks... and now that it's up the schedule, let's dig in: what did we get on Liberty?

Honestly... I wish I liked this a fair bit more than I do. Don't get me wrong, Liberty is definitely a return to form for Lindi Ortega, a very good and frequently great country record steeped in the sort of vivid spaghetti western melodrama that's normally a very easy sell for me. It's smoky and noir and cultivates some truly terrific moments... and yet the more listens I gave it, the more I got the impression that this record should be gripping me more than it is, and I really struggled to unearth why.

So for a change let's start off with the lyrics and themes... and remember how I started this whole thing referencing narrative-driven concept records? Yeah, for better or worse you might as well throw that out entirely, because while there is something of a loose arc to this record, to say there's any coherent story being told would be seriously stretching it. And as soon as I came to the realization that the songs are much more about capturing snapshots of lurid melodrama that can feel increasingly tangled - a lot like many of those old spaghetti westerns of which this record is fond - it was easier to follow, from the blood-splattered descent into darkness of the first act to the comeback and slow revelation of new love on the second to something a little more wistful but triumphant on the third, freedom found in culture embraced, and like Hurray For The Riff Raff's narrative-driven concept record The Navigator last year, it ends with the protagonist singing in Spanish and toasting to newfound freedom. 

And this is where we run into the first big issue: while I'd argue the niche and sound Lindi Ortega has chosen is unique enough in indie country, it was really damn hard to avoid comparisons to similar albums in this genre like The Navigator or even some analogous tones off from Whitney Rose or Courtney Marie Andrews. And thus you find yourself going to the writing to pick out the lyrical details that would make these songs distinct... and it's hard to feel like you're getting all that much, many tracks feeling rather threadbare when it comes to lyrical detail or lurid texture. This is where I'd argue the record could have done better to flesh out the narrative, not because we need a strictly defined story but because it would make individual songs and moments feel more distinct. Hell, it probably could have even enhanced the melodrama to capture more of those details - she wouldn't have had to turn down the broad strokes of the language being used here, just amp up the colour and grit. And what's exasperating is that Lindi Ortega has done this before, and it's very easy to point to records like Cigarettes & Truckstops or Tin Star and see analogous arcs and songs but with more distinctive character. 

Of course, what helps Lindi Ortega in a big way to compensate for all of this is her delivery and production: the mix gives her ample space to vamp effectively, and man she delivers, from the dark, witchy noir of the album's first half to the more lovestruck yearning of the second. I've seen some argue the reverb is a tad heavy on her vocals, but for the larger-than-life broad language and melodrama it definitely has its place, especially when you're playing against relatively traditional minor key country compositions, which eventually evolve to pick up more chord structures from salsa and mariachi as the album progresses. And even with that, there's some genuinely terrific tunes that comes of this: the warped sizzle of 'You Ain't Foolin Me', the very deep, acoustic-touched slow burn of both 'Afraid Of The Dark' and 'Darkness Be Gone', or the bright inflections of harmonica that infuse the great melodic structure of 'Lovers In Love', which is widely being recognized as the best song on the album and for damn good reason. However, despite some strong compositions here, there was a part of me that never really got sucked into the atmosphere as much as I was hoping, and finding the right word for it is tricky. Initially I was thinking 'kitsch' - especially with how garish and borderline cartoonish the record opens with the springy low-end and squonks of guitar, and it would be so easy to slot this sort of melodrama in that lane, but thankfully that is not a consistent feel for the record. What a better term might be is 'artificial', and perhaps some of this was shaped by unfair expectations on my part in looks for more grit and sizzle to flesh out the atmosphere. Oh, don't get me wrong you can get it especially with the noisier bass pickup and some of the lingering, spiky guitar tones, but as much as I might think, say, 'The Comeback Kid' is a great song, I'm left thinking that it could rise slightly chintzy spookhouse melodrama if it was willing to get a little nastier. Granted, I understand that the narrow line between seriously and kind of silly has always been blurred in spaghetti westerns, but this record has enough songs that nail the tonal balance that the moments where the smoother cracks show are more incongruous, and I'm just left thinking a little more wild experimentation in production or instrumentation might have tipped the balance in the right way - hell, it's a concept record, if there's a format that allows you to get away with that indulgence, it's this one!

But as a whole... man, I wish I could call this a great record, because for its ambition and colour and some of the best compositions and arrangements of Lindi Ortega's career, it feels on the cusp of getting there. But the more listens I gave it the more I found myself wishing for production and writing that cut a little deeper - and then I find myself thinking back to those spaghetti westerns that inspired the album and realizing that in truth, many of them had similar issues, and I can't deny that Lindi Ortega tapped into the broad strokes of the aesthetic very effectively, warts and all. But at the same time... maybe just a bit more texture would have gotten all the way there for me, which leads me to give this an extremely strong 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of this sort of hyperbolic, lurid western that can really be a ton of fun. It's not for everybody, sure, but if Lindi Ortega's narrative is one of a comeback out of uncertain darkness, it's an album that mirrors life and that can be a treat to behold, so check it out.

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