Album Review – Caroline Spence’s “Mint Condition”

Singing is not a skills competition, despite the way it’s presented in popular culture these days, where range and power are promoted like 40 yard dash times or one’s elevation in the pole vault. You can’t teach the type of tone that compels the ear and heart in a way that impacts one so vigorously, it veers towards the spiritual, awakening indefinable emotions in the end user, and conveying pain only in comparison to the physical sensation itself. Caroline Spence enjoys that one-of-a-kind gift of making a sound that doesn’t just draw you in, in makes every word and note sound immaculate and sincere, immediately inspiring swells of empathy from within the audience.

To hear Caroline Spence sing about heartache and loneliness is to be overcome with a feeling of tenderness. Sweet, feminine, inviting, yet infinitely sad, it’s the kind of voice a young child uses to ask for something, and is impossible to deny. It’s the kind of voice that makes you proud to count Caroline Spence as a member of the country and roots community.

Equitable support is what you most hope will befall your favorite independent country and roots artists, whether they’re struggling for attention among the throngs of aspiring performers barely holding on amid raising rents in east Nashville or east Austin, or living in some backwater on the outside looking into the power zones of the entertainment industry. Not everyone with a dream of making it in music can or should be able to, whether that dream is achieving a certain level stardom, or just something resembling a sustainable music career. Being a musician is an elective occupation with an ever-slimming amount of spots available to entertain busier and busier people.

But for those artists consistently demonstrating something demonstrably unique or gifted, it should be the obligation of society to shepherd them to the forefront of attention. It should be a priority to support these artists not just to keep us entertained, but to inspire us all to find our singular inner gift, and share it with the rest of the world, and be supported in that effort. Of course Caroline Spence should be signed to Rounder Records, just like Cody Jinks was recently. As the Americana label with major label muscle behind it, it’s a fitting home for the voice and songs of Caroline Spence, and the signing makes this album more important than just your average independent release.

Getting your big shot at making it in music doesn’t guarantee you anything though. Sometimes it’s the hunger and heartache that lends to an artist’s greatest expressions, and when they reach something resembling a summit, their creativity falters. Sometimes it’s an artist’s second record that only sold 300 copies which contains their best songs, while that big industry debut loses its soul and comes across as canned. For Caroline Spence and her Rounder Records debut Mint Condition, she crests at the right time.

A voice like Caroline Spence’s that demands compulsory attention for an audience is one thing. Writing songs to compliment it is another. Stiff debate could ensue about which attribute—singing or songwriting—is what makes Mint Condition stand out, with no wrong answer to be had. Spence had already presented herself as a preeminent songwriter of the independent Nashville scene with 2015’s Somehow, and 2017’s Spades & Roses. But Mint Condition is where a consistency emerges, offering no lulls in the enchantment of her storytelling and conveyance of emotions.

Unlike so many modern songs and records where composers utilize fairy tale notions of self-confidence in popular empowerment anthems addled by platitudes, Mint Condition is about Spence’s confidence to articulate her willingness to give herself to another, her fear at being alone, and an unapologetic need for companionship. This vulnerability is not an expression of weakness, it is an articulation of humanity, and when coupled with Caroline’s vocal qualities, has the ability to perforate the hardened protection around the most steeled of hearts.

Caroline Spence’s frustrating experiences as an independent musician infer the themes of songs like “Long Haul” and “Song About A City.” But it’s the simplicity of “Sit Here And Love Me,” the sadness of “Wait On The Wine,” the quiet desperation of “What You Don’t Know,” and the airy, moody, and atmospheric magic of “Sometimes A Woman Is an Island” that make Mint Condition a powerful collection of odes. The music of the album is solidly Americana, infusing influences from country, folk, and rock into its arrangement.

If there are any demerits to assign Mint Condition, it might be that near the end, the album begins to get a little sleepy. There are efforts to inject energy in the record, like the songs “What You Don’t Know” and “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes” employing a 90’s indie rock feel. But the attentiveness wanes a bit, even though the title track at the end is worth hanging around for, and might be the record’s best. As enchanting as Caroline’s voice is, she sticks around the same range consistently, allowing songs to blend together. The exception is “Wait On The Wine” where she challenges herself, and the audience is grandly rewarded for it. Exploring her range and different textures might be a way Caroline could improve on what is still a remarkable effort.

Mint Condition will be favored by those who’ve rooted for Caroline Spence for years now and hoping for this moment she’s been finally afforded, while also being a worthy introductory point for a wider audience by displaying just the kind of incredible talent waiting to be discovered within country and roots music’s independent realm.

8.5/10

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