Friday, June 21, 2019

album review: 'too mean to die' by karly driftwood

So I'm going to start this review on a tangent that could be considered political - you've been warned - and it focuses around a musician's personal life outside of the music, namely the reality that the vast majority of them can't afford to make a living off of music alone. Sure, you get a scattered few who are marketing masterminds and who can position their web presence in a way to collect more than you'd ever believe, but that's not the norm, especially for indie acts who are just starting to build their buzz. And work/life balance is a thing as you want to find time to write and produce and play gigs but also pick up shifts however you can, and sometimes that can lead you to rough territory, sometimes stuff that to appeal to a wider audience might be a little transgressive to put in your lyrics, especially if you're a woman and especially if it's tied to sex and sex work. Especially in American society, if you write about that stuff it's considered uncouth, you're risking backlash.

And I'm here to say that's absolute bullshit. Yeah, Cardi B stripped before she started making music - who cares? I can respect genuine talent, stage presence, and rapping skill that she has, and if she wants to talk about her experiences, that's fine by me. In fact, I'll go one further: beyond the fact that I believe sex work should be actively decriminalized and destigmatized, the fact that a certain subset of hip-hop fans want to marginalize her because of that past and the fact she talks about it is bullshit - after what you've let fly by in all sets of hip-hop, especially towards women, suddenly this is where you develop a moral standard? But let's keep in mind that hip-hop has at least been priming the pump to have that conversation - what other genres of music have gone there? 

Well, R&B... to a point, and of course it's shown up in the riot grrl side of punk, but how about country? Well, you could have a lengthy conversation surrounding how a predominantly conservative genre has dealt with sex - normally by sliding it into subtext or getting coy about it, and a lot of women have gotten really creative in how they've sidestepped moral censors - or your name is Bobbie Gentry and you write songs like 'Fancy' that are decades ahead of their time. Maybe it's a bit more explicit in the indie scene with acts like Lydia Loveless, but never that far if you're looking to cross over or get to a bigger label - until now. Meet Karly Driftwood, where with songs titled 'Stripped My Way To Nashville' are looking to provoke a reaction, yank the content conversation to a rougher, more transgressive and modern place where the sex and violence are allowed, and when you have a debut titled Too Mean To Die, you do grab an audience's attention. I'll admit it's been on my schedule for some time and I figured I might as well tackle it in full before the midyear, so what did Karly Driftwood deliver here?

So this is the sort of project I actually enjoy talking about a fair bit even beyond the content, because while I will not call this a great debut album, it's got the seeds and pieces to make for an interesting path ahead; flawed for certain, but in ways that can be tuned and tinkered with to further amplify a promising core. But if you're just curious about Karly Driftwood from this, I will say this is a promising start, splitting somewhere in the middle of Lydia Loveless and Lucy Hale - yes, seriously, I'll explain - with a more pronounced traditional country vibe and blunter lyrics. And if that sounds like a bit of a strange combination... well, I get the feeling that she's counting on that reaction, but it can be a mixed blessing and I reckon there might be easier ways for it to go down.

So for a change of pace I want to start with the writing, because that's going to be the most immediate 'shocker' to even a lot of indie-minded country fans, and I want to emphasize that despite there being some dark humour here, we're not talking about a gimmick like what Wheeler Walker Jr. has done. Yeah, the content is transgressive but it's not written in an exaggerated or oversold way in order to shock the audience - which might be one reason why she's faced some backlash in Nashville, because there isn't a veneer of artifice to build distance, and she's not mincing words. It's telling that 'Bake You A Cake' is probably the 'cutest' of the songs on this album in its kissoff, and it's the only one Driftwood didn't write, with only a few lyrical twists - what tends to cut a lot deeper are cuts like 'Settle For Being Used' and 'After Hours' and the biting industry commentary of 'Stripped My Way To Nashville'. Hell, she had to live hard to get to Music City to realize that a lot of rapacious men in the callous industry would want to treat her in the same way, and when you factor in drug and alcohol abuse, toxic relationships, and a lot of desperation, you'd think that'd make her sound jaded - hell, she titled one of her songs 'Jaded To The Bone' and the closing title track seems to confirm that dogged attitude. But the gutpunch comes with the realization that it's more projection to protect herself than reality - if it was real, she wouldn't put songs on the album like 'Ain't Even Close' where she remembers the friends who are gone who would have told her to toughen up if she wasn't still chasing a dream, or the real showcase of vulnerability where on 'Settle For Being Used' the sex is just okay enough and a respite from the loneliness that she takes the emotional abuse. And part of this comes through her delivery - she doesn't have the wear or harshness in her tone that could characterize, say, Lydia Loveless' bluntness in a similar lane or the witchy vibe of a Lindi Ortega. No, she sounds like the everygirl chasing her dreams in Nashville, which is why I'm a bit more inclined to excuse places where the poetic meter can feel a little clunky - that only makes the bitter pill of her chances at stardom that much harder to swallow.

But that's also where we run into the album's big issue: at least here, Karly Driftwood isn't a great singer. She's pitchy, there are points where she's not consistently on key, her belting can get pretty rough and lacks some tightness, and she doesn't have a lot of presence behind the microphone - granted, the production doesn't really help her and we'll get to why, but if she sounds like the everygirl seeing the darker side of Nashville, she's also probably seeing the side where more voices like hers wash out and not make it than those that do. It's clear that her writing is doing a lot of heavy lifting to compensate, but this is where a more textured or layered mix could give her a lot of help, and oddly that's not the approach we always get. I mentioned Lucy Hale earlier and indeed, what a lot of the polished guitar and banjo tones remind me of is her pop country debut Road Between, especially on songs like 'Fake Ass Friends' and 'Dodged A Bullet', which wouldn't be far removed from something you would have heard in the mid-2000s. Now don't get me wrong, I still think Road Between is criminally underrated as one of the best pop country albums of the 2010s, but Lucy Hale was decidedly making an album with an adolescent focus - Karly Driftwood absolutely isn't, which makes the pop country turn dissonant in a weird way from the much darker songs here - honestly, the more neotraditional sound does her more favours, especially when she can tilt into minor keys. And I get trying to show some range and diversity and not go completely pitch-black, and the lyrical content remains cohesive - the dodge of the basic asshole ex-boyfriend and the messy posers in the scene are absolutely songs that work for her - and they might even be an okay fit for her vocals, but the production is way too chipper and it doesn't really fit with the rest of the project. 

Speaking of which, like with a lot of indie country that hasn't quite settled on an aesthetic or wrangled a top-of-the-line producer, you could argue this album is a bit underproduced - for a more limited singer like Driftwood, more extensive multi-tracking and overdubs aren't a bad idea, or if that's not an option, opt for a closer vocal pickup and focus more on restraint and control, and that's not getting into how some of the attempts at programmed percussion sound rickety and underweight. And that's awkward to point out because the breadth of instrumentation across a fair few of these tracks is pretty layered and very country: the electric and acoustic tones are well balanced with a firm bass foundation, along with the keening pedal steel, some welcome fiddle, the strings and tinkling keyboards on 'After Hours', that pretty great solo on 'Bake You A Cake', the mournful tones on 'Settle For Being Used', and the outlaw country flourishes on the title track which leads to a strong hook. On the flip side... look, I get why a song like 'Stripped My Way To Nashville' seems like it collapses two or three times for as dark as it gets with some of the harsher guitars tones here, but while I get why that high-pitched gummy synth is included to emphasize a phony industry around her, the clash is ugly in the wrong way. 

But for Too Mean To Die as a whole... look, I think Karly Driftwood is a really promising songwriter, as she's got a welcome bluntness, a handle on emotional nuance and empathy, and a willingness to 'go there' in her content that can push buttons without feeling gimmicky. And when it comes to her sound, for the most part she and her team seem to have good compositional instincts - she can construct a hook, which puts her ahead of a lot of her peers. That said, the next big step has to be refinement: production and stylism that has more focus, tightening up the flow of her poetry, and work to strengthen her vocal prowess - or do none of those things and go more punk rock, aim for the raw and lo-fi crowd to which her content would probably be an easy fit, even if it does feel like the easier route, bizarrely enough. In short, what I hear with Too Mean To Die is a ton of potential that does come through in some great songs - very light 7/10, I've had a long time to sit with this and while it was very nearly on the Trailing Edge many times, I'm happy I got the time to cover it here. So yeah, if you're curious at a possible rising talent who will tell a darker story and tell it well, check this out. 

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