Thursday, August 8, 2019

album review: 'cheap silver and solid country gold' by mike and the moonpies

So fun question: if you're an indie country act who puts out an album that only your diehard fanbase hears about, does that count as a 'surprise' album?

Okay, snark aside, I did not see this coming: I figured after Steak Night At The Prairie Rose, we might not hear from Mike and the Moonpies for a little bit as they started slowly building their groundswell outside of their native Texas. And at least to me that made sense - even despite the feeling that Texas country was building a more defined mainstream or at least mainstream-adjacent place in recent years, planning this sort of expansion might take some time - and hell, even in the indie scene country doesn't move at the same pace as trap or pop, they probably could have afforded to take their time.

And yet with this project, Mike and the Moonpies didn't just deliver more of the same - which given their strengths and a reportedly terrific live show, they probably could have and the indie country set would have been just fine. Instead they flew out to the U.K. and recorded with the London Symphony a short selection of songs that they released the same day as Tyler Childers and damn near flew under the radar of everyone except the indie country set, who promptly lost their shit over it. And considering one of my criticisms of the group was that they were perhaps a little too set in a traditional sound, I did get excited to hear this, so let's not waste time: what did we get on Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold?

Okay, wow, this caught me off-guard - and in the best way possible. And let's be honest here, this could have very easily blown up in this band's face, especially with initial expectations: going in for me at best, I thought many of the diehard fans would regard it as a curiosity, a flirtation with opulence but never quite meshing, whereas at its worst it could be flagged as an epic miscalculation, immediately kneecapping their momentum. So I have to profess I'm stunned by how well this project actually works, not just a seamless integration of the London Symphony to flesh out their sound but also bringing a set of genuinely great songs to bear. And yeah, to my astonishment this could well be among some of the best country released this year, the sort of experiment that places Mike and the Moonpies in a different league and proving they can compete.

And yet before we dig into how they pulled this off, I want to highlight that there has been a slight departure in sound for the group on a compositional level, one that has already sparked a bit of controversy among the purists: a slight pivot from the honky-tonk Texas country to more of a late-70s/early-80s countrypolitan sound. And I'm of two minds on this, because on the one hand, Mike and the Moonpies built their reputation as being an energetic live act where more sedate cuts might not play to their strengths, and this is an era in country that doesn't tend to have the best reputation... mostly for good reason, as there was a lot of sleepy, easy listening-adjacent dreck that was made at that time. But on the other hand, if you look at the production-approach Mike and the Moonpies have taken with much cleaner tones from the guitars and pedal steel, it's a pivot that doesn't feel too far afield, and the blending across a bigger sonic palette and deeper mix feels more naturalistic than I ever would have expected. And that's important to highlight: the band didn't abandon the swells of organ and pedal steel, the solid guitar lines, and especially the tighter bass that gives them their groove just because there's now a cushion of strings to play with, there's still a strident Texas country twang across this project, just with buckets more polish and melodic intricacy. Take how the clean guitars and organ touch off the string as the bass thrums on 'Cheap Silver', the sharper guitar interplay on the slightly seedier 'You Look Good In Neon' - which along with the sharper grooves of 'Miss Fortune' and rich pedal steel and crisp acoustics of 'If You Want A Fool Around' somehow capture just enough elegance to make the songs seem way more romantic than you'd expect - and that's before you get the darker stomping sizzle of 'Danger', that has as much swagger as any other Mike and the Moonpies song! Hell, even though I'm not precisely crazy about the melodic progressions with the quick guitar florishes bouncing off the organ of 'Fast As Lightning', I admire how effectively it's able to switch up into other keys and maintain the atmosphere - although I will say the final notes of strings on that song do hit an odd note, but we'll come back to that. And then there are the two covers, one of 'Young In Love' from Aaron Sinclair - generally a pretty slice of vintage pop country but also one that feels a little underwritten and doesn't quite play to the group's strength - and the other of 'London Homesick Blues' by Gary P. Nunn... which honestly turned out better than I expected even if it does feel a little on the nose given how this project was assembled, especially as a minor-key closer.

And that's about it in terms of songs - six originals, two covers, it's a brisk listen and one that you would expect to sound a little more opulent given the London Symphony behind it... but that's the trick, at its core Mike and the Moonpies kept things in their lane without getting swallowed up, and where this best comes through are the vocals and the writing. Mike Harmeier isn't especially a commanding or incredibly distinctive singer, but he's got the poise and quiet grace to fit comfortably on these songs, confident that good mix placement and his words will command attention rather than oversold showmanship. And the writing across this album does highlight that, splitting the difference between low-key but mature love songs and snapshots of the road that shows a Texas country act far away from home, with enough commitment to detail to make these songs stand out and have some genuine self-reflection. The opening track is a great example - musings back on the road where at their current bar the band is overplaying the artifice, but then he checks himself and thinks about how this is exactly where he wants to be. And that reflexive shadow from the road definitely slides over the hardscrabble path ahead on 'Danger', as well as the neverending tour of 'Fast As Lightning', which does lead naturally into 'London Homesick Blues' where he's lost, frustrated, and just wants to go home - an oddly downbeat note to end things on, but if they were looking to reassure folks the band would return to their Texas comfort zone, this would be it. But on the flip side the love songs we get here are pretty damn great, from where the one-night stand is plainly defined on 'You Look Good In Neon' but they're both having so much fun that nobody could care, to the string of bad luck references that nevertheless turned up aces on 'Miss Fortune'. But the most intriguing moment is 'If You Want A Fool Around', where he's very clearly playing the lovesick "other guy" who is just waiting for a chance, could easily wind up in 'Treat You Better' territory... but the framing hits that narrow window of blunt honesty in how it's so unlikely and that he's an idiot for continuing to chase her especially when he let her go in the first place - the emotional balance works, and in the context of for what is mostly a road album, in a peculiar way it works logically too.

And as such... man, I really dig this album, such a welcome surprise and a gamble for this band that paid off in spades. I do have my gripes - I wish it was a bit longer and embrace a few more darker textures on original compositions, and while I get the intended arc the emotional beats feel a bit off in its conclusion. But at the same time, the seamless and truly beautiful integration of these textures puts this in great company, and as such... yeah, very strong 8/10, absolutely recommended, and if you're looking for a point to get onboard with Mike and the Moonpies, while I won't claim this is the most representative of their usual sound - hell, it could just be a one-off experiment - it is worth hearing. Short, sweet, and definitely special, check it out!

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