The steel guitar is not an essential element to country music. Neither is the fiddle, the banjo, the mandolin, or the Telecaster. Sure, all of these things help give definition to whether a song is country or not, but they’re not required. The one essential ingredient to make authentic country music is authenticity, and that’s why Midland is unqualified as a blah blah blah yaddadda yaddadda, yackety smackety….
You almost thought I was going to torture you yet again with another diatribe about Midland’s authenticity (or lack thereof) and the holes in their origin story. Didn’t you? Well I’ve said my peace on that matter in the past, and at this point, it’s settled business. And luckily, the rollout for their latest album The Last Resort: Greeting From was not greeted with reams of sanctimonious puff pieces that would require correction and context.
It’s not even that those “authenticity” concerns don’t continue to linger. But Midland is most certainly a mainstream country music bright spot, and has been ever since the band’s inception. This new album is no exception, once again taking Midland’s throwback 90s-era style complimented by the savvy writing of Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, and making something not entirely unique or exceptional for those whose country music diet doesn’t consist of corporate country radio, but something world-beating compared to Midland’s peers, and less of a guilty pleasure for indie country and Americana fans.
The new Midland album is anchored by the song “Sunrise Tells The Story,” which is one of the few songs not written by the band and the McAnally/Osborne duo, but by Midland guitarist Jess Carson, along with Jessi Alexander and Aaron Raitiere. You can tell how good this song is by how much it’s struggled at country radio. Even though we consider Midland “mainstream,” they haven’t exactly benefited from the perks of that world. They’re in-betweeners, built top down by Big Machine Records, and supported ground up by more distinguishing grassroots fans.
“Two To Two Step” is another banger from the record, while “And Then Some” and “Take Her Off Your Hands” deftly exploit country music’s tradition of the double entendre to give you those tasteful little lyrical hooks you love, while steel guitar and twangy leads deliver all the classic styling all the best modern country music does. This may be Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne’s moonlighting writer/producer gig after getting down and dirty with Sam Hunt and similar slime all day, but there is upside for all of us that Midland is an outlet for all the actual country songs Music Row writers come up with in their writing sessions.
But there is also some to complain about with this new LP. Midland released a 5-song EP last year called The Last Resort, and it arguably included most or all of this new album’s best songs, included the four ones previously mentioned, and “Adios Cowboy.” If your wore out the EP over the last year (and many Midland fans did), that leaves you with little new, and little good to pull from the album proper.
The opening song “The Last Resort” is just a slightly more twangy version of those tired Kenny Chesney “toes in the sand” beach songs we’ve been so tortured by for the last many years. “If I Lived Here” about making a home at the bar is a song concept that has also been done so many times it’s tired. Same with “Bury Me In Blue Jeans.” It’s like the creativity ran dry halfway through this record. For once, someone should have called it good with the EP, and left listeners wanting more.
There’s also a run of songs where lead singer Mark Wystrach takes a break, and guitarist Jess Carson sings a song he wrote by himself, followed by bassist Cameron Duddy. Jess Carson has always been Midland’s ace in the hole, and the one with the most street cred. Jess’s “Life Ain’t Fair” is another valiant effort at a classic country song after turning in a couple others on the band’s last album too.
But goodness, video producer, Bruno Mars buddy, and Midland’s money bags/industry contact Cameron Duddy turns in one whale of a dud with his effort, “King of Saturday Night,” which is some sort of bad hair metal version of self-aggrandizing dreck that should have been left on the cutting house floor.
The collaboration with Jon Pardi called “Longneck Way To Go” is passable, if perhaps a little forced. But similar to many of the favorite performers of independent country fans, the magic of Midland is sown by leaning into country music’s clichés, which can work in stretches. The key is to be classic, but not dated. That’s the mistake that’s made with a song like “The Last Resort” and a few others that feel more like early 2000’s country as opposed to retro 90s, both in the writing, and with the sound. Overall, The Last Resort: Greetings From has a more rock edge than Midland’s previous records, and it usurps a bit of the cool factor from some of the songs.
You still have to show preference to the folks like Mike and the Moonpies, and the recent 90s-inspired album from The Mayor of Lower Broadway, Joshua Hedley called Neon Blue that does what this Midland album does, just so much better. But where you do what you do is important too. When folks listen to Midland and want more where it came from, their options are limited in the mainstream, and so they end up seeking out alternative avenues in independent channels.
Midland can be one of those important transition bands. The concern is if they overshadow the bands fans may transition to, and do it under false pretenses. It’s not really about authenticity. It’s about honesty. Be who you are, and own it. But as long as Midland can do that, then it’s our duty to focus on the music first. And when you do, you have to conclude that it’s not half bad.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.2/10)
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Purchase The Last Resort: Greets From