The Midwest. Ohio. Cincinnati. Too far west to be anything more than tangentially tied to Appalachia. Too far east to be synonymous with the West and its wide open spaces. Too far north to be the South. Too far south to be North. Hip to leave and disparage as boring. Easy to bag on and hard to give a fair shake. But it holds its own mystique all the same, for many of its residents and those who know where to search for it. Discovering beauty in the abandonment, hope in the decay, happiness in the forlorn, this is what tests the mettle and acuity of a true artist and songwriter. It’s easy to poeticize the picturesque.
Arlo McKinley never exactly “made it” in music living on the outskirts of Cincinnati. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone. You can impress some by dropping the knowledge that Hank Sr. once recorded in the city, but it’s not exactly an artistic epicenter. And at 40-years-old, little hope remained for a positive outcome for Arlo and his music, that is until John Prine’s Oh Boy Records came calling, dutifully impressed with some McKinley songs slipped to them. After Prine himself approved of what he heard (the final artist that John gave the nod before his passing), Arlo’s hopes and prospects were revitalized in midlife.
Arlo McKinley empties the kitchen of every single top shelf heartache and sad story he has in the tank on what is officially his first solo album, Die Midwestern, and turns in a stunner of a record for Oh Boy, if to no other end than to not let the blessing of the great John Prine down. It was the song “Bag of Pills” that impressed Prine the most that he signed the Kentuckian/Ohioan, and even preparing yourself, you still won’t be steeled for the emotional wallop the song delivers. Perhaps no other songs encapsulates Midwestern breakdown from a modern perspective better than its passages.
Be forewarned, Arlo McKinley is not here to make your cares melt away. A devastating record of songwriter-based Americana roots music, it’s one mid to slow tempo emotional steamroller after another with lines that cut and moans that reel. And it’s not as melody bereft and musically challenged as some of this ilk suffers from. Die Midwestern captures inspired takes of songs that sometimes are 10 years or older in McKinley’s repertoire, and that don’t just rely on writing and rapt attentiveness from the audience for appreciation. Despite the dour subject matter, these songs feel alive, and producer Matt Ross-Spang makes sure they’re blessed by character and presence, articulated skillfully by players such as Will Sexton.
You’re a bit surprised by just how country some of the songs are as well, pleasantly so, and how these tracks make up some of the more infectious moments. McKinley throws the old cowboys a bone with the piano-based whiskey swiller “She’s Always Around,” sounding like something Webb Pierce would have recorded back in the day, with Arlo’s voice set far away unlike the rest of the record where it’s delightfully full in the mix. The fiddle cuts that comprise the melody of “Suicidal Saturday Night” are what draw you in, and the twang in the guitar and unique cadence in “Gone For Good” make for another one of Die Midwestern‘s standouts.
But let’s not bury the lead here. You come to Arlo McKinley for the pummeling, and he dutifully delivers in a way that yes, tends to send critics swooning, but not in ways that render the songs entirely inaccessible to many like some critically-acclaimed Americana records. Die Midwestern is this Ohio/Kentucky boy making good on a better-late-than-never opportunity by turning in a record that may be one of the year’s best, with the only gripe by those that have been following McKinley for many years being that he might be too big to see in a dive bar in the future.
By leaning into the sense of helplessness and heartbreak, and touching on criminality and destitution, Arlo McKinley makes a strong, compelling case why the Midwest is inexcusably overlooked and under-appreciated as a muse, while making an effort to right that injustice by leaving a mark on the music world that cuts so deep, it’s difficult to impossible not to remember.
Two Guns Up (9/10)
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