Thursday, November 28, 2019

album review: 'desert dove' by michaela anne

So here's the problem with discussing trends in an independent or underground scene: they're much tougher to contextualize. Some of this comes from the inability to hear all the acts that might be creating or shifting the sound - there are always more than you might think - some of it is rooted in the uneven speed in which such trends evolve, as some sounds will stick for years while others are gone before you know it. And in some cases just classifying the sounds as a 'trend' might be painting with too broad of a brush - there is such a thing as coincidence, after all, and sometimes a bunch of acts land in the same territory all at once; it can happen.

Of course, the success of one act relative to the mainstream can kick all of this into high gear and spread the influence further... so let's talk about the current wave of more 'atmospheric' country music, which I'm going to coin as 'dream country' in the vein of dream pop because I feel like it. And it's not far afield either: while the mainstream might have touched against some of the reverb-touched swell and spare sweep of it all in passing before hopping on the next snap beat, the indie scene has been delving deeper into the sounds with increasingly regularity, especially among the women who have been carving into this niche alongside jazzier tones and rockabilly. Often bringing in a lot of folk tones or a splash of psychedelia, you could point to crossover acts like Casualties of Cool or First Aid Kit, the sound has picked up more traction in recent years thanks to crossover projects like The Weight Of These Wings by Miranda Lambert and especially Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves, and that's not to snub fantastic indie acts like Courtney Marie Andrews, Angeleena Presley, or even the last country artist I covered here Caroline Spence who have delved into these tones with some regularity. And while similar tones have suffocated indie folk and indie rock in recent years, what I like about 'dream country' is how acts don't just suffocate themselves in a blissed-out 'vibe' - the tones only accentuate huge voices, jagged touches of texture, and a lonely vibe that gives space to dig into the details. It's also a sound many have highlighted has its roots in California or the folk-leaning 'canyon' sound... which finally takes us to Michaela Anne. She's another artist who slid onto my backlog early thanks to how I liked her pretty straightforward 2014 album Ease My Mind, but I'll admit my interest cooled a bit with her followup Bright Lights and the Fame from 2016, which embraced more dream country textures on some of the deep cuts but also felt weirdly messy at points and trying for more neotraditional country jauntiness that it could convincingly land, at least for me. Unfortunately, her label started going through financial trouble, which stymied the album's promotion and left her in trouble, so she took the risk to move to California, sign to another indie label, and take a major financial risk to write and create Desert Dove. And given the buzz was some of the best she'd seen to date, what did we get here?

Well, I'll say this: not only is Desert Dove easily the most lush, textured, and interesting project that Michaela Anne has put out thus far, it's pretty damn great overall, hitting her stylistic balance between dream country atmosphere and more grounded, rough-edged texture. And while the Caroline Spence comparison was on my mind given the proximity of their reviews, I'd argue Michaela Anne is playing in similar but not identical territory: she's not as husky or reserved, she seems to take bigger chances with richer delivery and more developed compositions, but not always delivering the same degree of nuance or depth, although I do get the impression she's heading in the right direction.

In fact, let's start with the writing, because if there's one point on this album that keeps this project from among the best indie country I've heard in 2019, it's probably here. And it's not even that the writing is bad so much as it can feel a bit inconsistent or slight at points, which is what can happen when you're playing in broader strokes. The song that immediately springs to mind is the fiddle-driven rollick of 'If I Wanted Your Opinion', which is playing in the same vein as a cut like Sara Bareilles 'King Of Anything' or 'Buy My Own Drinks' by Runaway June in its kissoff of an arrogant blowhard, but outside of a nice key-change it's pretty by-the-numbers. And that's not always a problem when the production does more - we'll touch on this in a bit - but it reflects a level of deeper detail and nuance that doesn't always come through like on 'I'm Not The Fire', which tries to play for sympathy for a guy trying way too hard, but lines like 'you can be happy if you choose' just hits an odd note, especially when the album ends with the acoustic ballad 'Be Easy' that hits that compassionate note way better. But it does highlight the breezy vibe of most of this album as a whole, where there's an emphasis on passion but not really a ton of deeper satisfaction to anchor it, which might give a lot of exuberance and potency to 'Child Of The Wind' and 'Run Away With Me' - and a lot of weight to how she might commit too strongly on 'One Heart' - but does make me question some of the naivete that seems to come through 'Tattered, Torn, and Blue (And Crazy)'. Well, 'naivete' isn't the right word, because one of the great assets of this album is how self-aware she is in the big chances she's taking, but that does strike a bit of an odd note against the more sober relationship moments, like the deep-seated regret on 'Somebody New' where she's not sure how or why she fell in love, but is now trying to break things off even if there's still real feelings there - which is tough to do when you have a song like 'Two Fools' that highlight how they might be holding things together in public but have just never mustered the nerve to truly end it. And then there's the title track, where she's watching a hookup from the sidelines where both partners are trying to salve their loneliness, having lived too long and too hard - hell, the subtext might as well highlight how quickly she could wind up in the same place, and if this album is coming at any sort of theme or arc, it's finding that emotional balance, the right give and take.

Now for as much as I spent the first chunk of this review discussing dream country, it obviously must take center stage on this album, right? Well, yes and no, which is my other minor issue with this project: for as burnished and warm and organic as this album feels, like her last project we once again get a few of the more neotraditional-leaning songs like 'Two Fools' that just don't quite feel as interesting as the sweeping atmosphere and deeper smolder of a dream country sound that not only flatters her voice, but helps her album feel more unique. Now granted, in those more conventional songs the pedal steel and strings are warm - I love the strings embellishments against the flattened guitar on 'Child Of The Wind' - and the acoustic pickup is extremely well-placed and I really do like how she gives her band the space to cut loose for more guitar solos than I otherwise expected, and even poppier moments like 'Run Away With Me' are a natural fit for her expressive timbre... but when this album opens up we get some truly stunning moments. On the one hand you get the incredibly lush elegance of 'Tattered, Torn and Blue (and Crazy)', but on the flipside for as well balanced as the rounded bass touches ride beneath the acoustic guitar of the regretful 'Somebody New' and the darker, ominous build of 'One Heart', they're really in a different ballpark. The title track is great for that as well, with the faint touches of bells against the shimmer and smolder of the guitar layers - it's territory for which Michaela Anna's strident delivery is amplified, especially when the backing vocals are well-placed, and for even simpler cuts like the 'partners on the road' song of 'By Our Design' the smoky rollick is excellent! Couple it with phenomenal blending but enough of an edge creeping through, and enough attention paid to atmosphere and mood... I'm not going to say it's as intricate as what Emily Scott Robinson brought this year, but I can hear the same meticulous attention to detail, but delivered so smoothly you could almost miss it!

But to pull this all together, Desert Dove is a great project from an indie country talent where the risk is amplified through every note of yearning swell. Easily her best work to date, while artists like Courtney Marie Andrews and Caroline Spence are more worldweary and lean on mature gravitas, Michaela Anne puts me closer in mind to the brighter tones and hooks on the most recent Kacey Musgraves album, but leaning more heavily on pronounced country timbres for that anchor point. And while there's a part of me that can't help but think the project could be a little tighter and punch a little harder, I wouldn't want that to come at the expense of that passionate core, which is why for me I'm giving this a solid 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation. Yeah, I'm a little late to this one too, but if Michaela Anne is going to put the 'dream' in dream country, I'm happy I'm onboard for the ride.

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