Wednesday, February 13, 2019

album review: 'into the blue' by alice wallace

So I've said a number of times before one of the biggest problems with indie country is how it can really struggle to get the word out surrounding new acts - internet-driven groundswell has started to take more shape over the 2010s, but it's been scattered at best, and too often I find myself going back to dig up acts where if they hadn't slipped below the radar I'd have given them a ton of acclaim.

And Alice Wallace is a pretty striking example of this - a California-based singer-songwriter, she's been putting out albums since the beginning of the 2010s with a pretty damn striking voice and a fondness for yodeling, but what really captured my interesting was her 2015 album Memories, Music & Pride, where the songwriting took a measurable step up along with production that picked up more detail, refinement, and muscle. And it's tough to nail down an easy comparison for her sound - a little more stately and neotraditional than Karen Jonas' gritty early material but not as inclined towards pop as Caitlyn Smith or cutesy as Kacey Musgraves, as observational as Brandy Clark but not quite as wise just yet. But hey, that comes with time, and Memories, Music & Pride probably deserved a solid review back in 2015, it's a great album, so you can bet I was curious about her follow-up this year with Into The Blue - so what did we get?

Well honestly, it's hard for me to not go through Into The Blue and call it just as good as her last project, if not a bit better! And the strange thing with this Into The Blue is that it still reflects a remarkable amount of versatility and potential that Alice Wallace has going forward, still being carried on a terrific voice and tone that pulls from other lanes to refine her sound, all without being derivative of what can be seen as a pretty busy indie country scene. Maybe it's the distance being in California that keeps her away from trend-riding timbres, but it's absolutely working for her, and it definitely deserves a lot of attention.

But let me start with the criticisms I do have for this project... most of which feel pretty minor, all things considered, but do feel relevant, especially when it comes to the larger questions of why Alice Wallace hasn't quite broken through yet. And for me it seems to come down to how it might be difficult to pin down her distinctive lane, which some has followed up with the assertion that when she dabbles in different territory the songs aren't quite strong enough to stand out. And indeed, if I'm going to compare cuts like the country-soul fusion of 'The Same Old Song' with many of the indie acts in the same lane, or the Spanish guitar and smoky Latin vibe of 'Desert Rose' to, say, a Lindi Ortega or Hurray For The Riff Raff cut, I can see how Alice Wallace and her producers don't quite have the same command of the texture she needs. She absolutely has the clear pipes and control and poise, but you could definitely question whether she needed a little more to differentiate those songs from what we're familiar with in the genre - good songs for sure, but they don't quite stand out as much as they could without a bit more bite or sizzle. And that's the other thing: for as burnished and warm and melodic and layered as so many of these songs are, you could make the argument they lack a certain bite or snarl to add immediacy and grab the listener - they're rounded and smooth and go down easier, which definitely reflects refinement but there are some topics here that could afford to be a bit more brittle and dangerous, like on 'The Lonely Talking' or the gentler folk-country touches of 'Top Of The World'. Hell, I'd even say 'Echo Canyon' is close to that territory too even despite its pealing pedal steel and darker, warping smolder, although her yodeling does a great job pulling it together - and on that topic, I do understand why there's less yodeling on this album, but she does it so well I was almost looking for more!

But keep in mind most of this is production-nitpicking from someone who is convinced Alice Wallace could bring that slightly more raw edge as a singer while still sounding refined or bringing the subtlety where she needs it, and if you're looking for a reason to check out this album on talent alone, it comes with her. Just the belting on 'When She Cries' bringing a burly Muscle Shoals sound is absolutely fantastic, especially with the full commitment to the richer horns and strings, but when you pair it with the subtle heartbreak of 'Elephants', the wistfulness of 'Motorcycle Ride', or the beautifully multi-tracked hook of 'The Blue', you know Wallace's voice is your strongest asset on this album. And not only is she given space, she's given richer instrumental melodies and harmonies to compliment those vocals: the low-end gallop and flutes on 'Santa Ana Winds' that leans into its Latin influences, the twinkling touches from the keyboards on 'Motorcycle Ride', and the strings layering on 'The Blue'. Hell, for as lush as this album can feel the easiest comparison is probably Caitlyn Smith's Starfire from last year, but Alice Wallace is more controlled and this project is a lot more even - and defiantly country to boot, because even the songs that step towards soul or blues or touches of mariachi are still grounded in neotraditional sounds, showing that in any decade of the past forty years this could have worked!

But those are common elements of praise: if I want to highlight where Alice Wallace deserves more acclaim, it comes in her songwriting - and while I've always appreciated her folk tendencies in fleshing out the detail, the added steps into nuance and storytelling do a lot of heavy lifting surrounding the central themes here, most of which are focused on the women in Wallace's stories stepping out of their comfort zones against both internal doubts and a very dangerous world, sometimes forced out of necessity, sometimes of their own volition. And while 'Elephants' has gotten the most immediate credit - a song that sharply casts not only the real fear women can face in refusing men and not calling out their bullshit or abuse, but also the fragile ego and insecurity of guys that lies at the roots of so much of it - thematically this album is varied but remarkably consistent. 'Desert Rose' tells the story of a desperate Mexican woman making a run for the U.S. border - and sadly feels missing a few more teeth in telling what might have happened should she arrive seeking asylum in the modern era - 'Echo Canyon' has her thrown from her horse after a dark ride facing the frigid wild night ahead, 'Santa Ana Winds' has her fleeing the fires raging across southern California, and 'The Lonely Talking' has her trying to apologize for her drunken storm-out in the face of insecurities she personifies. But what's most potent about this album is how much the women of these stories are at least trying to claim some of that complicated narrative, and the exhilaration of taking that control gives songs like 'The Blue' and 'Motorcycle Ride' a journeywoman's touch and momentum. Hell, that probably most underscores the closing track 'For Califia', where it seems like the wildness was tamed and then history rewritten to say it was willing, but you can't bury that spirit, and even by planting the seeds on the wind some of that drive and truth can be reclaimed.

So as a whole... yeah, this was an excellent album, and I was late to the party covering it properly, but let's correct the record by saying if you're looking for another strong indie talent, Alice Wallace is delivering in spades - and I speak to larger backers as well, she's got the tone and pipes to play to a much larger audience that I reckon she deserves. And as such... yeah, solid 8/10, absolutely recommended, and definitely worth keeping your eyes on going forward - Alice Wallace is only getting better, and is definitely worth a lot more attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment