Album Review – Michaela Anne’s “Desert Dove”

Amid the mountain ranges running like crooked spines through the rugged landscapes of the American West, rain shadows persist over large tracts of land, causing the earth to crack and the sand to blow, leaving only the most hearty and resourceful of living things to scratch out a meager existence under an unrelenting sun. Impossible to avoid when trekking to country music’s epicenters out West, these desert scapes have become the inspiration for country and Western artists for nearly a century. From the Singing Cowboys serenading the saguaro cactus, to Gram Parsons scattering his ashes among the Joshua trees, the wide open spaces, the solitude, the way the barrenness makes the color of a single flower poking out through the sand that much more potent has inspired the poetry of many a country song.

Recorded in San Clemente, California where the desert meets the sea, Michaela Anne’s Desert Dove looks to capture the majesty and wonder many feel while in the midst of these arid landscapes, and instill it into songs about life and love. Produced by contemporary California country artist Sam Outlaw (now in Nashville), and Kelly Winrich of The Delta Spirit, they call upon a menagerie of sounds to see this expansive vision through, with textures of country, folk rock, classic pop, early psychedelia, and even Latin to extend Michaela’s sound beyond her original home of more defined country.

Michaela Anne has lived a life on the move. Growing up in a military family, and now living as a traveling musician, she’s undoubtedly experienced those moments of desert wonder in her travelogue, and captures her restless experiences in the soaring chorus of the song “Child of the Wind.” The first song on the new record, “By Our Design,” is a very intimate portrait of her life with her husband and drummer in their quaint Nashville abode. But from there, much of Desert Dove finds Michaela resuming one of the themes present in previous works of an open and sometimes reckless heart prone to fall in love at a moment’s notice.

“Will I ever learn to protect my heart?” Michaela wonders, as a worried steel guitar wafts along the melody of “One Heart” like a foreboding wind. A similar theme is broached in one of Desert Dove‘s most country tracks, the close dance song “Two Fools” about finding it hard to define boundaries between friends. In “Somebody New,” the danger goes from impending to absolute, speaking to the struggle within even the most steeled of hearts. Ultimately, we are all at the whims of emotions that often are stronger than our efforts to beat them back.

Incredible care goes into the compositions of Desert Dove, from the writing, to the use of steel and strings and keys to create the ethereal and airy mindscape that allows you to float above mundanity and lose yourself in these songs. Long-time Michaela Anne collaborator Kristin Weber creates lush, spirited string arrangements, while the lead guitar parts include notions of Tom Petty and Mark Knopfler. Both delicate and confident, just the sound Desert Dove makes feels like a precious thing. But don’t think by the pink hues of the cover and Michaela’s petite build that she’s a pushover. The stern confidence of “If I Wanted You Opinion” marks on the the record’s best tracks.

Though all the songs of Desert Dove are well-apportioned and pleasing, and the variety is ascetically fulfilling in it’s diversity, you worry just a little bit that by not being too much of any one thing, Michaela may fall into that indefinable realm of “Americana” where it can be hard to separate from the herd. The two clearly country songs on the record don’t come until the final third, and some of the more airy and soft production may hide the deeper body of material born out in the writing.

But this might also be the right recipe to spirit Michaela Anne into the greater awareness her musical efforts deserve. Another beneficial attribute to Desert Dove is how producers Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich discovered what is possibly the best way to present Michaela Anne’s songs and voice in recorded form. She pulls off country very well, but doesn’t have a hard twang to her voice, and some of her songs don’t lend perfectly to the country aesthetic. The California-style of country where those folk rock influences can flow in is probably the preferable way to present her music in a more pleasing and flattering approach, even if as a country fan you kind of selfishly want a few more of those dancehall shuffles since she does those well too.

As the first release from Michaela Anne on Yep Roc Records, the hope is Desert Dove will take her from a struggling songwriter moonlighting as a piano teacher, to one of those names we regularly mention as an artist helping to lead the independent roots resurgence. Many could learn from the hard work Michaela has put in to make it here, and the care and passion put into this project from all involved, while we all benefit from the pleasing results. But Desert Dove doesn’t feel like the final cresting of the mountain, it feels like the starting point for an artist long overlooked, and one who will hopefully be carried to even greater heights from the spirit instilled in this record.

8/10

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