Monday, April 1, 2013

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves - "Same Trailer Different Park"

I first heard Kacey Musgraves on the 2010 Josh Abbott Band album She's Like Texas. When my uncle gave me a copy of it, he specifically highlighted a song called "Oh, Tonight," -- on which Musgraves duets with Abbott -- as a standout track. It was.

Then somehow or another I ran across this video of her on YouTube singing about her frustrations with Bible Belt religion, ultimately concluding that her "idea of heaven is to burn one with John Prine." A true girl after my own heart.

Her debut album Same Trailer Different Park, released on March 15th, is a collection of the simple and the understated, flying in the face of popular current mainstream trends and all the phony chest-thumping braggadocio. Musgraves' songs contain more authenticity than all of those current chart-topping male country singers supposedly singing about it, put together. This ain't pandering. It can't be when the album boasts more banjos and steels and acoustic instruments than hard rock guitars and faux hip-hop verses and auto-tuned choruses. For a mainstream release, Musgraves seems conspicuously beholden to no one but herself. She's literally doing her thing. And we'll see if that's enough perhaps to change the game a little bit in a genre obsessed with mediocrity (and far worse) and terrified of change.

I'm certainly not saying this is a perfect album. It's a major label debut by a young twenty-four year old; if she released a perfect album on her first try they should go ahead and burn the mold to ashes before they throw it in the dump. I will admit that on the first listen I wasn't quite sure what to think; it wasn't quite what I expected; I'm not sure what I expected. But subsequent spins have proven this album is, of all things, a grower. The songwriting is strong, the album flows like a river and contains no clunkers, and it displays the undeniable potential Musgraves has to have a meaningful, long-lasting career, creating poignant art that doesn't sacrifice her heart and her integrity. This debut release has certainly captured my attention. The hype is deserved. I am itching to see what kind of impact she has on the mainstream airwaves, and I am already itching to see what she does next.

Track by track:

1) Silver Lining (Musgraves/Josh Osborne/Shane McAnally) -This is my favorite track. The production sounds wonderful, the melodies effective, and the emotion hopeful yet tinged with an almost nostalgic sadness. I can't think of a better way to kick off an album. (If you're ever gonna find a silver lining, it's gotta be a cloudy day)

2) My House (Musgraves/Osborne/McAnally) - Sweet, fun, and not overdone, this ode to mobile homes and mobile love you'll not be able to get out of your head. We even get a taste of Musgraves' harmonica chops. And can you believe there are no drums? (If I can't bring you to my house I'll bring my house to you)

3) Merry Go 'Round (Musgraves/Osborne/McAnally) - The little single that could still stands out over the course of the album. Musgraves shatters small-town romanticism by speaking the truth in love -- country music, folks. The album also gets its title from this song, which Musgraves says is another way of saying "same shit, different day." (It don't matter if you don't believe, come Sunday morning you best be there on the front row like you're supposed to) (More on "Merry Go 'Round" can be found here.)

4) Dandelion (Musgraves/Brandy Clark/McAnally) - A delicate song about love lost, comparing a former lover to a dandelion, a weed that always makes her cry. Good lyrics on this one. (I sense you dancing on the breeze, and like a stupid little girl, I spent my wishes on a weed, thinking it could change my world)

5) Blowin' Smoke (Musgraves/Luke Laird/McAnally) - The second single to be released from the album is much different than Merry Go 'Round -- a little more fun, a little more rockin'. This tale of diner waitresses who always talk about leaving and getting the hell out of dodge to really live their lives is super catchy, thanks to a sweet bluesy electric guitar riff. The Prine influence is heavy on this one as humor abounds. Hopefully radio catches on. (We all say that we'll quit some day, when our nerves ain't shot and our hands don't shake)

6) I Miss You (Musgraves/Osborne/Laird) - Another example of the understated production of the album. I am still amazed this is a mainstream release. In a way, thematically this song somewhat reminds me of George Jones' classic "She Thinks I Still Care" in that there is the quintessential unreliable narrator trying to convince the listener he's over a former flame. I'm not saying this song is on the same level, but that's pretty good company to keep. (Been kissed by lady luck, the stars are all lined up, every arrow that I aim is true, but I miss you)

7) Step Off (Musgraves/Laird/McAnally) - A heavy dose of banjo flavors this fairly standard up-tempo kiss-off song. To me this would be the only somewhat forgettable song on the album if the chorus wasn't so damn catchy. To be honest, and I hate to say this, it's just got a little too much of a Swiftian vibe. There, I said it. (Just keep climbin' that mountain of dirty tricks, and when you get to the top, step off)

8) Back On The Map (Musgraves/Laird) - This was an early favorite of mine along with "Silver Lining." It's atmospheric and moody and probably the "least country" song on the album, but it totally works. Really good stuff. (Gotten too far off the map, not so sure I can get back)

9) Keep It To Yourself (Musgraves/Laird/McAnally) - Musgraves has a really nice flow to her vocals on the verses here, while the chorus is simple and gets the point across. One aspect of said point is essentially "Stop drunk dialing me." It all sounds relatively unoffensive and pleasant enough to the naked ear, but the lyrics really give this song its bite. (You're thinking that maybe you made a mistake, and you want me to know, but I don't wanna know how you're feeling)

10) Stupid (Musgraves/Osborne/McAnally) - This song might be the most fun on the record (also the shortest). It's about the frustrating-as-hell nature of love when it fails and how we feel about it when that happens: stupid. There are some "oh-oh-ohs" placed perfectly in the pre-chorus that add a lot to this one. I guarantee it's a blast to see played live. (Plays you like a fiddle, shakes you like a rattle, takes away your gun and sends you into battle)

11) Follow Your Arrow (Musgraves/Clark/McAnally) - Here Musgraves again channels John Prine's humor and disregard for the powers that be trying to set limits on art. Already in danger of being labelled the "gay pot" song, in reality this is just a simple, poetic song about not being afraid to be yourself. In no way is the song preachy; the opposite, in fact. It's so giddy and good-natured that you might miss the "controversial" elements the first few times around. If this song is ever released as a single and actually does well, I don't know exactly what that would mean, but it'd shock the hell out of me. It'd be a good thing. (You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, so might as well just do whatever you want)

12) It Is What It Is (Musgraves/Laird/Clark) - In style and structure, this is the most traditional sounding cut on Same Trailer Different Park. Vocally Musgraves truly shines on this one, especially during the chorus. It's a song about "friends with benefits" (I've read elsewhere that this is a song for the "hook-up generation"), so lyrically it's probably the least traditional cut on the album, and that makes for an interesting dichotomy. But merely calling this a song for the hook-up generation is simplistic and does a huge disservice to it. Musgraves sounds vulnerable and desperate, sad and yearning, giving the song complexity, tinging it with a bit of guilt and regret. It's a real zinger of a closing track. Well done. (Maybe I love you, maybe I'm just bored. It is what it is, 'til it ain't anymore)

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