Thursday, November 21, 2019

album review: 'mint condition' by caroline spence

So we've reached the part of the year where the major releases have started to seriously dry up and I'm stuck poring over what I've missed - yes, I was thinking about covering Lady Antebellum or Madeon, but neither were particularly interesting in sound or content and that really is the reason why I created the Trailing Edge in the first place and how plans for next year will be able to rectify this sort of situation - stay tuned for an announcement mid-December about that - so why not go back and cover an indie country album that really intrigued me? That sounds more fun, right?

Well here's the thing: when I first starting researching for this album and went back to listen to Caroline Spence's 2015 project Somehow, I was really not impressed. Yeah, the vocals were pretty but the production was very sedate and low-key and I wasn't really wowed by the writing, so it took me months to work up the energy to dig deeper. And yet I'm really glad I did, because 2017's Spades & Roses is genuinely excellent, with way better vocal positioning, writing that had developed an idiosyncratic cadence and style and several deeper notches of nuance, and production that had taken its spare organic country vibe with just enough reverb and multi-tracking to accentuate the striking melodies - not quite as warm or strident as Courtney Marie Andrews, but absolutely playing in the same ballpark of quality. It was one of those projects that had me kicking myself I couldn't have found it two years ago, but it made me absolutely certain I had to cover Mint Condition, her album this year - so what did we get?

So this is the sort of project that had to take a while to grow on me, mostly because of its sound and approach that isn't as immediate or direct as many of her peers, and I wouldn't quite say there's an immediate slam dunk in the same way 'Softball' was on the last album. But Mint Condition is a pretty great album provided you give it the time and patience to really take in the fine emotive details - perhaps not among the top tier of indie country releases in 2019, but certainly worth your attention.

So let's get my main criticisms out of the way first, namely that as a whole, this is an album that can run short of momentum and get lethargic quickly. Part of this is a factor of Caroline Spence's husky delivery, which is emotive but can be a little soft-spoken - if you're paying attention there's a lot of subtle nuance to her delivery but it's not hard to find yourself drifting off a bit thanks to the slower tempos overall and the more atmospheric production, where the melodies are often pretty but generally spare, occasionally lacking that foundational motif to hold a little more attention. And immediately the comparison to an artist like Courtney Marie Andrews springs to mind again, especially given her tremendous emotive range, but she also brings a slightly wider breadth of tones behind her: the atmospherics can get more smoky and jagged, and there's nearly always a more burnished sense of warmth that I'm not always sure Spence has. And yet that does make a certain amount of sense - while both Mint Condition and May Your Kindness Remain are searching, there's a sense that Spence is more downbeat and lonely in her journey, and while there is hope her wistful expectations are more tempered. Granted, I say this while following that 'Song About A City' and 'Long Haul' are probably the most underwhelming cuts here, as despite some nice bass interplay on the former and some organ fleshing out the latter, they feel a little by-the-numbers in delivery and tone, especially in comparison with the more jagged edges and scuzz sliding behind 'Who's Gonna Make My Mistakes' or the slightly darker opening of 'What You Don't Know' off the sharper kickdrum. But I'd be lying if I said the best instrumental moments didn't come off the ballads - spare, touched with reverb to let guitars or pianos linger in the background off the acoustics, they do a striking job emphasizing the loneliness of this project, from the long, lingering coos behind 'Sometimes a Woman Is An Island' to the beautiful piano touches anchoring 'Sit Here And Love Me' and 'Wait on the Wine'. And that's not even touching on the richer strings backing on 'Til You Find One', which comes closest to a Caitlyn Smith-esque pop country sound, but it's one Caroline Spence can sell very convincingly. Hell, I even appreciated the rougher edges of guitar that crept in behind 'Angels Or Los Angeles', it's texture that counterbalances her voice extremely well. 

But again, this is an album that rewards attention and sinking into the atmosphere, because when you get into Caroline Spence's writing, it's easy to get hooked. She's described this album as one in various states of searching... although where that search might take them can be loaded indeed. Hell, the opening track seems to imply at least some form of cheating took place and a lingering sense of panic and guilt at this connection, and while the scene is ambiguous, there's plenty left in the subtext to imply the infidelity. And there's a similar vibe to the conscious mistakes being made on, well, 'Who's Gonna Make My Mistakes', where she's tipsy, can't afford it, and is listening to someone is more interested in serving his ego than satisfying her... but when you're lonely or desperate enough, you'll justify it for your art to fill that deeper void. Indeed, that context and self-awareness that her art is always a factor is a nice touch to songs like 'Song About A City', where the ex is occupying more of her thoughts beyond telling stories on the road, even as both 'Long Haul' and 'Angels or Los Angeles' seem to imply she's finding some sort of fulfillment on those lonely roads... or convincing herself she is. And that's a very telling bit of subtext on this project, because you can tell that there's some resistance in what or who she wants to help fill that void, especially if it's another person and then trying to feel worthy of their love. Look at 'Who Are You' where for as much as she's been searching, to find someone who questions her self-care and wants to be there, especially if there's something there, her defenses go up, and when you also include the mature relationship songs like 'Sometimes a Woman Is An Island' and 'Sit There And Love Me', where she knows all she needs is the moment of trust and support and care while in her own space... it's potent. It's also why 'Wait for the Wine' is so wistful but kind of heartbreaking at the same time - she knows there's something real between them but has to let her inhibitions go to realize it for herself and not bury it away. But for the lingering loneliness of 'Til You Find One' where an active search can be utterly fruitless, she can't throw this chance away. And while I'm not crazy about the title track as a love song, it fits the lived-in arc to stick the landing of the album, it fits.

So to sum it all up... yes, I know I'm late to talking about this one, but I'm very glad I did, because this is a really well-crafted and likable country album. I don't quite love it or am sure if outside of a few specific tracks it'll be among the best of this year, but for setting this sort of mature, thoughtful, occasionally heartbreaking vibe, Caroline Spence really nailed it here, so I'm giving this an 8/10 and a big recommendation. Not surprised to see this fly under the radar for a lot of folks, but if you get the chance... yeah, check this out.

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