Album Review: Midland–On the Rocks

Rating: 7/10

Look, Midland are full of shit. I know it, you know it, and Midland sure as hell know it, and they should drop the bullshit about how they’re this bar band from Texas. But they aren’t going to, and we can either spend time hung up on that, or actually focus on the music. I can understand the criticisms, but look, there are a lot of artists I don’t like or respect personally that make fine music. You wonder why I don’t have a picture accompanying this review? Well, think about this: I don’t look at the outfits. Yes, I’ve seen the stories, but it’s easier for me to assess the music on its own merit. Many of you, and understandably so, judge a lot about an album or artist simply by the cover, something I didn’t honestly take into fair account until the John Moreland record. At that point, I saw as many comments on the cover as on the album. I see remarks all the time on the image of the artist, usually derogatory ones on mainstream artists peppered all over SCM threads, just to be blunt. Anyway, at that time, after I became curious at the scrutiny the Moreland cover had received, we started adding captions here for many of our covers, to give blind readers that advantage of being able to discern things from the cover art. Indeed, sometimes these captions have given me insight into my reviews. When you see the Steel Woods cover with a farmer biting into an apple staring into a hurricane and then hear “The Secret,” it’s all the more intense. Liz Rose’s cover adds more to that album too. But here, with Midland, I want you all to take your focus off that for a moment and just think about the quality of the music. I know this is ridiculous, and that you’ve seen plenty of pictures of them and their cover from other outlets, but try to understand the point I’m making here.

So we put this record on, all extraneous bullshit stripped away, and I’ll be damned, it’s traditional. Maybe not the second coming of Haggard, but I’d say 90’s country. NO electronic drumbeats, plenty of steel and fiddle, yeah, you know, those things we used to take for granted in country music. And this came out of Big Machine. I didn’t know it was possible in 2017. I didn’t know there were still people left in Nashville who could play actual instruments for an entire thirteen-song album. And you want to talk about songwriting by committee? Yeah, I’m not a fan of that either, but isn’t it refreshing to see people like Shane McAnally actually lending their names and talents to something resembling country music? You know, the guy that put Sam Hunt on the map?

And that’s not to say this album is going to be the best thing I’ve heard all year, not by any stretch. The best word for it is consistent. It’s solid all the way through, and it took a few listens to sink in. At first, it was pretty unremarkable to me. A couple listens in, this would have probably gotten a 6 from me. There are a couple life-on-the-road songs here like “Electric Rodeo” and especially “Check Cashin’ Country” that just seem fake–no, not because Midland haven’t traveled all over Texas, just because they’re a young band, and they don’t have the experience anyway. These songs just seem clichéd, and actually, that’s the biggest problem with this whole record. The songwriting by committee thing is most evident in this respect because you don’t get personal details from Midland; it’s great that the style is traditional country, but much like Alex Williams’ latest, this often feels like an interpretation of style instead of anything resembling personal expression. It’s a debut, and just as with Alex, I think we can forgive that for Midland. It’s the clichés that held this back for me at first, but equally, the songs are better as a whole than those on the Williams album, so it’s a 7, but a hesitant 7.

I said the songs are better, and it’s true–this album just won me over after awhile. It’s hard to hear “Make a Little” and not smile, both at the country instrumentation and the catchy melody. There’s “More Than a Fever,” which reminds me of something George Strait might have recorded later in his career. There’s “Somewhere on the Wind,” which manages to pull off the road-weariness thing pretty well. Clever details and hooks in songs like “At Least You Cried” and “Out of Sight” elevate these tracks as well. As I say, it’s not groundbreaking material, and there’s not a whole lot I can write about it, but it’s very solid.

I wish Midland had never lied about their background because a lot of people, myself included, would have never given a shit where they came from. But you know what? In a way, I get it too because from the shit storm I’ve seen on Twitter this week, I daresay there are some narrow-minded people who would have never given this band a chance even if they had been honest. It’s that narrow-mindedness that I hate in the independent/Americana/Texas scenes. And if you deny its existence, I present Sam Outlaw, his name and his previous occupation in advertising, as Exhibit A. How many people don’t give him a chance because of either or both of these things? It’s no excuse for Midland’s lies, and I think that’s done more harm than good, but in a way, I understand it. I’m sorry they didn’t let the music speak for itself, but we as music listeners can do just that, and that is how I for one choose to approach Midland. And if you do give this a chance, you’ll find some pretty good country music.

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5 thoughts on “Album Review: Midland–On the Rocks”

  1. News flash, you’re late to the “Midland Isn’t Authentic” bandwagon. Did you even bother to do a bit of research for your review before slamming the band as “BSers”? Actually, don’t answer that. I know the answer, you didn’t. You just picked up on the little meme running around that the lead singer is an “underwear model” and ran with that. Do you even know Mark Wystrach? I do. Very well. Along with his tiny gig at Calvin Klein, he’s had a short run on a soap no one heard of (Passions), started a shoe company with his brother in law, bought that outrageous Cadillac seen in the Drinkin’ Problem video used about 12 years ago for like $1000, and in between, worked his ass off to improve his musical skills. He’s worked harder to make ends meet than anyone I know, and if it took modelling or acting jobs, he jumped at the chance. But his passion from the beginning has been country music, it always has.

    And here’s the part I’m certain you don’t know, or chose to neglect: he grew up on a working ranch in Southern Arizona, working long days and then spending nights in his family saloon (The Steak Out in Sonoita, Arizona) listening to honky tonk bands for years. His mother, Grace Wystrach, is an absolute legend in the Arizona ranching community. Mark litterly grew up on a horse and in a honkytonk, along with his twin brother and 4 older sisters.

    All this “inauthenticity” BS is just that. Anyone that’s known Mark realizes what a hit job this all is. Please, show my anywhere in the various media articles the last few weeks, where Mark embellished his resume? They clearly state they moved to Dripping Springs in 2014, and make quite a bit of fun of Mark’s other passions (forgive the pun) including his time as a model. The music speaks for itself. Hell, for those of us that know members of the band, I see autobiographical bits everywhere in the songs. It’s great music, from a couple of guys that really have lived an authentic, country life, horses, honkytonks, and all. I call BS on your BS.

    1. You’ve clearly missed the point of this entire piece, which was to stand with Midland’s music regardless of how “authentic” they are. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if they’re authentic or not, the music is good, or did you just read the first sentence or two of this article? I know about the stint on Passions, why do you assume I don’t? Because I don’t choose to mention that in a review designed to make people see past the bullshit, true or not, and focus on the important part, the music? This is a really misplaced attack, you should be focusing your energy on something like, a platform with much larger reach and influence than mine, who actually factored the backstory of Midland into the grade of the album despite, like me, actually liking the music, because they believe Midland’s lies are that important and that much of an insult to all the struggling musicians being kept down in Texas and Oklahoma who never had a leg up in the industry, a modeling job, a stint in acting, etc. Background doesn’t matter, and everyone’s got the right to make country music and tell their own unique story. Midland’s existence in the genre is good. Their music is good, and welcome in the mainstream. But don’t act like being a soap actor is akin to a normal job, or that Midland didn’t have industry connections. I don’t care that they did, but stop painting a picture that they sweated and toiled all their lives to the degree of many Texas/Oklahoma musicians who are just as talented but will never be heard on the scale of Midland because they didn’t know the right people.

  2. I completely agree with your review! Also, congrats on this website: I just discovered it and I really enjoy it! Great job guys!

  3. This new album by Midland is by far the best album I have heard in along time. This sounds like what Nashville music should sound like. All the songs are great and good old country. Thank YOu

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