Wednesday, June 5, 2019

album review: 'between the country' by ian noe

So I'm not sure how to broach this the comment in a way that won't be misconstrued, so I'll just say it: I've been struggling with indie country in recent months.

And you wouldn't think that'd be the case - the expectation is that since indie country is free of the Nashville songwriting machine you'd find more variety or flair that's distinctive, but like with other underground genres, you tend to see trends take hold in much of the same way. The vintage rockabilly that might occasionally dabble with soul, the \southern rock and outlaw country bravado, and most frustratingly for me, the stripped-back folk-leaning singer-songwriter material that at its best can produce material like Emily Scott Robinson's stunning Traveling Mercies, but at its worst just becomes tepid, underwhelming, and a frequent reminder that 'unplugged' doesn't automatically translate to 'deep' or 'interesting'. And at some point Dave Cobb will produce something and it's basically a roll of the dice whether you get something striking and memorable or see him tip towards undercooked grooves or a delicate vintage palette that's just become a bit played out. And yes, of course there are exceptions I'll praise - the fact that Alice Wallace brought so much diversity to Into The Blue is one reason that album has held up for me this year - but again, they're exceptions, not the rule.

So when I heard about Kentucky native Ian Noe's debut album Between The Country pick up some critical acclaim with the comparisons to Colter Wall and the Dave Cobb production credit... look, I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I was bracing myself for something good, but that I've heard dozens of times before. But hey, it was either this or listening to Miley Cyrus or Thomas Rhett, so what did I get on Between The Country?

Okay, this caught me off-guard, and let me start by saying that I wouldn't blame your average country fan not being able to get into this on the first or second listen, and not just because of the sound. No, what Ian Noe has nailed with Between The Country is the sort of deceptively layered but jagged indie country release where you can sketch parallels but never a direct line other acts in the scene, and that's before you get into the content which splits the difference between haunted, desperate, and outright brutal. Hell, I'd call it southern gothic if there was even a veneer or deeper promise of beauty, but for a record that racks up this sort of body count traipsing across rural Kentucky, you get the feeling that possibility is less likely with every track - oh, and for the record this is one of the best albums of 2019, so you might as well strap in.

First off, let's start with instrumentation and production, and where I do feel there needs to be a slight correction to the Colter Wall comparison: while this album might have similar melodic structures thanks to similar roots in traditional country - and again, we're talking about the stuff where you can tell there are traces in Celtic folk, which slips most starkly into the title track here - from a production standpoint Ian Noe is a little different. Yes, Dave Cobb gave them both the expansive echo across a larger mix, but the instrumental foundation behind Colter Wall was always more spare and acoustic to accentuate the bass in his voice, whereas here the guitars both acoustic and electric are allowed to pick up a little more presence and that's before you get the piano line to flesh out the melody on a fair few of these cuts too, or some very slight accents of simmering organ at the very back. Part of this is a natural fit for Ian Noe's thinner, more nasal tone that seems to be trying to split the difference between 70s-era Willie Nelson and a hint of Dylan in how he approaches higher notes, especially on 'That Kind Of Life'. But I suspect the narrower line is preserving the deceptive edge cutting through many of these songs while not compromising a richer mix, where you can actually hear the bass providing a foundation for once, especially on cuts like 'Dead On The River' demand the deeper atmosphere and the guitars are allowed to get a bit tinny or scuzzy to compliment the seedy edge of 'Barbara's Song' and the title track, or the sizzle adding texture to 'Letter To Madeline', or even the electric interplay on 'Junk Town'. Now that's not saying the fundamental appeal of a distinctive voice with minimal accompaniment has gone away for Ian Noe - you wouldn't get spare cuts like 'Junk Town' or 'Loving You' - just that this time the mix doesn't lose its dynamics to get there. Hell, even on a few songs we get female backing vocals to compliment Noe or traces of field recordings of water or trains, and it's a great touch to improve the immersion! But honestly, the production trick I probably appreciated the most was that slight touch on 'Meth Head' for the acoustics to sound ever so slightly jagged and strung out - it's subtle, especially given the guitar and piano layering on that cut, but it was just the point of texture that this album needed.

Now Dave Cobb has always had a knack for those fine details - hell, the only points of contention I have musically towards this project is how the bass melodies could afford to be a little more developed, a few tunes can run a shade long, and maybe he could have eased up on the vocal reverb just a tad - but he also knows his job for a project like this is just to get the hell out of the way and let the lead artist deliver his stories. And Ian Noe's got them in spades, drawn from hometown experiences in rural east Kentucky, where the moments of hope are few and far between and the dream holding the majority of these people together is growing fainter with every day, which only increases the desperation. And an important thing to note is that Ian Noe's framing is top-notch on this project: sure, a story like the bridge collapse and train derailment of 'Barbara's Song' and the bloody outlaw end of 'Letter To Madeline' might be stylized, but it fits the barren folklore that would stand as testament amidst a region in decay, a backdrop that never fades and always seems to linger psychologically in the minds of his characters. Take the opener 'Irene (Ravin' Bomb)', where the titular character is a drunken mess swaggering into the family home in the midst of a downward spiral, and not only is her volatility convincing in how her parents cannot properly confront her, but also her own moments of vulnerability where she's seeking oblivion in alcohol just to keep the deeper demons away. And what's very important is that this album doesn't ask you to be sympathetic for her or really to anyone here, even if their situation is desperate beyond measure. Take the loss of work and instability that plagues everyone on 'That Kind Of Life' when our protagonist might have a stable job on the rigs but everyone else is falling apart - the subtext left unmentioned is how that work is often just as dangerous and Ian Noe nearly suffered an accident himself when he worked the rigs - or the opiate-wracked scene of 'Junk Town', or even the snippets of people's lives on 'If Today Doesn't Do Me In' - it's gallows humor and sardonic as hell, but they have to keep up hope for something.

And that sense of fool's hope might as well be the clearest throughline this project has - it explains why the otherwise kind of underwhelming 'Loving You' sits as unrequited yearning at the album's center, or how even on moments of brutal calamity the songs are, at their core, love songs. And it's telling that when this project succumbs to nihilism you get the darkest moments here, such as the cold-blooded murders of 'Dead On The River' and the (slightly) more justified justice found on the title track - but the question lurking behind both songs is whether in such a world, where death becomes so much more certain, whether a few more moments of life might be a greater blessing, if only to preserve that hope. Which takes us to 'Meth Head', bound to be the most striking and controversial cut on the album because of the mercilessly unsympathetic take on the junkies across the song, with their physical decay described in horrific but exacting detail and damn near as zombies to be buried alive on the final verse - it doesn't even seem to match the take on addicts you got from 'Junk Town'! And I'll be honest, I'm a little torn on how to take this one, because the brutality of the language doesn't imply much in the way of nuance beyond pitiable wretches that our narrator would put down, embracing a drug that doesn't take away pain like opiates but consumes them in a more grisly fashion - but note that said narrator is still living there all the same, so it could be any combination of haunted fear, disgust, pity, or even guilt that has him dig their graves early. And if you have ever confronted addicts who are fiending and violent - and in downtown Toronto, I absolutely have - look, it's far from a pleasant set of emotions to admit you might feel on a visceral level when you want to be compassionate, it's the sort of pitch-black mirror Ian Noe absolutely knocks out of the park.

But as a whole... honestly, this is the sort of fully-formed, powerhouse debut that absolutely justifies the hype Ian Noe has received, but it's also a little to properly contextualize and describe. The sound is remarkably detailed and well-composed, traditionalist but with just enough fine details to imply more depth and complexity than the spare backdrop would normally indicate, and the tunes do cut through. And the writing... look, this album ends on a really bleak note of violence where the plea for life and hope is the most anyone can ask for, especially with sins lingering on the soul, and even then it probably won't be enough in the face of a grim and unfair reality... but the fact that it persists in some form gives this project a grit that doesn't succumb to nihilism, speaking for those falling between the cracks in a way that's visceral and likely more relatable than most want to admit. In other words, it's one of the best country albums of the year, one hell of a debut, and it's getting a 9/10 from me. Folks, I can't promise Ian Noe will explode in the same way many indie country acts have in the 2010s, but he's certain primed to, and he's got the chops to earn it. I'd get onboard now, because this is something special.

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