The sophomore album from the self-proclaimed ‘21st Century Honky Tonk American Band’ plays out like an immersive dream in its diverse, vibrant arrangements and wistful sentiments.
Mark Wystrach (vocals, guitar), Jess Carson (guitar) and Cameron Duddy (bass) are two years on from On the Rocks; the debut album which consolidated their rule over the neo-traditional honky tonk revivalist renaissance in country music. Dressed in Nudie suits and ditching their past lives as models and music video directors, there’s no doubt that the Esquire-primed three-piece were somewhat of a novelty upon breaking into the mainstream. But On the Rocks was more than just a novelty album. Written primarily by the band along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, the record was saturated with lavish guitar arrangements, strings, mouth-watering harmonies and, at their core, honest and heartfelt songs. Whilst Burn Out and Drinkin’ Problem brought wordplay fit for country radio, real emotion lay in the deep cuts. The sexual allure of a country song, once presumed dead as a result of the brash bro-country movement, became revitalised on tracks like More Than a Fever and Make a Little. The melancholic storytelling of Nothin’ New Under the Neon and Somewhere on the Wind let the lyrics and Wystrach’s emotive vocal performances speak for themselves, instead of clumsily shoving the narrative down the listener’s ear in the way a Florida Georgia Line record might. A novelty perhaps, but On the Rocks made Midland a novelty worth buying into.
"Let it Roll for sure has its fair share of swerves...it highlights new nooks and crannies in the palette of Midland’s music."
Fast forward two years and after several commercially successful singles, a UK tour and a performance at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, Midland return for a second studio outing. Importantly, the sound they’re trying to win us over to is not one which has ever felt it has had to evolve within itself – the conventional song structures of 90s country pop and the gliding pedal steel, emergent in the 70s and 80s, are tried-and-true methods of constructing a song to resonate with country’s vast United States-centric audience. Let It Roll in essence doesn’t challenge that equilibrium. The harmonies, guitars and pianos are still there to soundtrack stories of love, loss and the perpetual nightlife that comes with touring. But it has balls beyond that of a George Strait-wannabe in 2019, and consistently Wystrach, Carson and Duddy share their bottom-of-the-bar life experience with the listener at both the speed of a whiskey shot, and the speed of a long backseat ride across the country to the next show.
The song 21st Century Honky Tonk American Band itself is easily the biggest curveball of the lot. With a southern rock sound closer to that of The Georgia Satellites than Willie Nelson, Wystrach recalls “Running off cocaine, couple hours of sleep / Can’t remember all the halls ‘cause they look the same to me” in a balls-out, musical middle finger to the Nashville status quo. The song consults the country equivalent of a hip-hop beat switch in the last minute-and-a-half as the instrumental goes from rockin’ to dreamin’ in the space of a second, before smashing the accelerator on the band’s engine for the closing section in an undeniable pitch for the ‘Most Shredding on a Country Album’ award at next year’s CMAs.
"Every piece of Let it Roll feels thought out, every emotion delivered as if the narrative of the song is ongoing, every arrangement visualised with all the beauty of the Rocky Mountains"
Cheatin’ Songs poses an equal challenge, but this time to Midland’s lyrical wavelength. A highlight in the 14-song tracklist, it draws a rare vulnerability out of Wystrach as he proclaims “It’s back in fashion doing somebody wrong” between hesitant presumptions based on cigarette-scented jackets and newfound jewellery. Each line of the hook twists into the next with effortlessly impactful wordplay (“She’s lyin’ with him and she’s lyin’ to me”), whilst all the narrator has to fall back on is the re-discovery of mid-70s Cheatin’ Songs.
But Cheatin’ Songs in fact serves as a motif, set to recur at a later unfaithful interval in the tracklist. Cheatin’ by the Rules reverses the roles of its prequel in an effort to underline the defects of human loyalty. Sleek, under-the-radar and delusional whilst bringing empathy to its protagonist, the narrator tries his best to both justify his lack of integrity and cover his back – “As much as I love it baby, don’t wear too much perfume” preludes “We both got somebody we lost the fire for” in a perverse, paranoid but understandable outlook on life. Wystrach’s note-perfect croon sounds equally at home on both of these tracks, and his broadened ability to portray characters on both sides of the emotional scales speaks to his standout versatility as a vocalist.
Let it Roll for sure has its fair share of swerves – but even when it’s not trying to outshine On the Rocks, it highlights new nooks and crannies in the palette of Midland’s music. Second single Put the Hurt on Me is a slow-burner, but has the fuel to start an all-out bonfire. Almost a sonic sequel to More than a Fever, it envisions a scenario in which the narrator has slipped too far down into the emotional sheets of another to the point of no return. With a hook just as passionately adhesive as the On the Rocks cut, the desperation rings out between the minor keys of the haunting guitars, sparked by a doomed-to-fail relationship salvation scheme, of which the only feature is a physical sense of longing and a desire for the pain to be over, sooner rather than later.
"While the later tracklist features a few less immediate cuts...the innovation doesn’t end until the album does."
Likewise, Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song boasts all the relatability and memorability of breakout single Drinkin’ Problem. “You don’t have to wait on Cash if you’re just here to get trashed / ‘Cause every song’s a drinkin’ song when you’re drinkin” it claims, capturing being too-far-gone to care about the soundtrack of an intoxicated evening, provided there is a soundtrack. A no-need-to-be-anywhere drunken plod as opposed to a stroll, instrumentally it’s nothing special, but it’s a much-needed drinking anthem amid lonely stories of distance and heartbreak. Speaking of, the song often referred to as the first defining point in Midland’s early releases Fourteen Gears propagates the rural amateur charm of a first single. The gears of the ruthless touring cycle and the need to be with one’s significant other grind against each other as Wystrach’s sombre cadence rides the drums and steel guitars across the roads of the American mid-west.
While the later tracklist features a few less immediate cuts (if On the Rocks is anything to go by, they will likely become favourites with age), the innovation doesn’t end until the album does. For the first time, Carson and Duddy are brought into the spotlight to cover lead vocals on two of Let it Roll’s final three tracks. The Carson-fronted Lost in the Night is the standout of the two – his faint, airy voice reminisces the popular California rock of the 1970s in a kaleidoscopic recollection of a night long-gone, with lyrics that bring some of the most unapologetic romanticism of the entire album (“I would’ve bribed God just to hold back the dawn”). Roll Away, Duddy’s cut and the album’s closer, is less enthralling, but still sees the bassist grab the opportunity to poetically detail a past love of his. In an instrumental ‘post-credits scene’, Midland let their signature acoustic and steel guitar tones speak on their behalf as Duddy’s memory and the memories revived over the whole album fade back into the night.
Let It Roll is without doubt a compelling development on On the Rocks, and not even a development the band had to make to create a gripping second album. Their retrospective sound is still new to mainstream country, and their contemporary take on the best bits from country’s past is still fresh due to the thoughtful lyricism and vocal delivery of their frontman and the immaculate production of their records. Yet every piece of Let It Roll feels thought out, every emotion delivered as if the narrative of the song is ongoing, every arrangement visualised with all the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. With a spur-of-the-moment vibe as clear as a vibrant dream, Let It Roll is a clear rejection by Midland to merely acquiesce in their nostalgic niche. Is ‘dream country’ a genre? I think it might be now.