Boy, oh, boy, Midland sure have ruffled some feathers. Some writers puffed out their chests and turned blue in the face pontificating on what a real “backstory” in country should be. Backstory is backstory is backstory. Facts were left out, misinterpreted, rearranged, and that’s fine and dandy. Whether you’ve toiled away on the Texas circuit, pouring out your blood, sweat and tears night after night, for a decade or snagged the winner’s cup on some singing show, the ultimate test is the music itself: does it hold up? Is it rooted in country’s threaded, well-worn, all-by-my-lonesome ethos? And lastly, does it possess a keen eye for the future? The trio’s debut record, On the Rocks, ticks all the right boxes: situated between Dwight Yoakam and Brooks & Dunn (“Nothing New Under the Neon” calls back to B&D’s 1991 hit “Neon Moon,” as well as Leann Rimes’ similarly-titled “Nothing New Under the Moon”) but flowing with enough boot-scooting razzle-dazzle to feel accessible for today’s growing Generation Z. It’s a fast paced smorgasbord of western tunes marinated and smoked underneath twinkling neon signs from a backwoods honky-tonk. “Drinkin’ Problem,” from which the troubadours draw the name for the record ⎯⎯ “people sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom just ’cause I’m living on the rocks,” they playfully smirk on their first No. 1 hit ⎯⎯ squares away the album’s general stylistic cohesiveness. The cheeky word play, along with some of the best harmonies you’ll hear on mainstream radio, is what makes the LP work; instead of breaking in two, the band embrace those subtle eccentricities to charming effect.
Backed by Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group, with industry stallions Shane McAnally (Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt), Dann Huff (Brett Young, Faith Hill) and Josh Osborne (Brandy Clark, Thomas Rhett) on producer duties, whiskey-smooth lead singer Mark Wystrach, guitarist Jess Carson and bassist Cameron Duddy navigate the perfect neo-traditional lover’s wet dream. It also helps that their band name was inspired by a Yoakam song, a jangly, rustic ode called “Fair to Midland” from Yoakam’s 2003 album Population Me. At times, On the Rocks feels selflessly kitschy, obvious ploys for nostalgia gluing the sonic hooks together ⎯⎯ but it’s a ticket we’ve punched and spent already, particularly in the world of Kacey Musgraves (and her shimmering hoedown, throwdown countrypolitan aesthetic) and Chris Stapleton, whose 2015 CMA Awards performance remains the turning point of modern country. Music Row has been itching to cash in on the new wave, and now, they’ve gone and done it.
Whether you believe Midland are too-on-the-nose, too-manufactured-for-their-own-good, they inhabit the spirit and line-dancing sway of late-80s, early-90s country music quite snugly. If you were to draw red lines throughout the record, you’ll find nods to Alabama (“We can turtle dove, Dixieland delight,” they sweet talk on new single “Make a Little”), George Strait (“Out of Sight” borrows the dreamy velvet of songs like “Give It Away,” “Carrying Your Love with Me” and “I Cross My Heart”), Alan Jackson (“More Than a Fever,” a more progressive version of any classic Jackson romancer) and Brooks & Dunn, in more than just fleeting glances. On songs like “This Old Heart,” “Altitude Adjustment” (also a sheepish wink to Hank Williams, Jr.’s “Attitude Adjustment”) and “Electric Rodeo,” they aren’t even attempting to hide the musical resemblance. “At Least You Cried” clicks along with mariachi blasts, touching on “My Maria” in feel and jaunty texture. “Burn Out” then could be a distant cousin to “Brand New Man” or “South of Santa Fe.” Despite flirtations with a bygone decade, On the Rocks is wholly modern, embellished with harder-biting guitar strokes and Wystrach’s unapologetically sweet and palatable vocal.
There might not be a particular moment which rises above the rest ⎯⎯ although bar-saloon spinner “Somewhere on the Wind” comes pretty damn close ⎯⎯ but On the Rocks works best as a shiny, entertaining, eye-catching body of work. In an age of streaming and generally shorter attention spans, Midland have accomplished what many do not: entice listeners to stay for the whole shebang and it pay off. 13 tracks soon chugs forward like a soundtrack to a John Wayne western. You get the sappy, OTT romance, the adventurous fables spanning the barren, tumbleweed-strewn countryside and the reflective, skin-to-skin intimacy ⎯⎯ and you never get the sense they are “faking” anything. They wear their emotions as proudly as they do their rhinestone-studded suits. You can’t help but be stupefied by their magnetism. Now that they have our attention, a bit more depth will take them where they want (and need) to go next.
Grade: 3 out of 5
Photo Credit: Harper Smith / Album cover courtesy of BMLG