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.