This is a very, very good album. How to communicate all of the joys and virtues of country music while remaining connected to the roots of the genre, but also offering something unexpected and enriching is the challenge that every country artist faces. It’s one Stacy Antonel rises to and meets with her debut album that blends country and jazz similar to Eilen Jewell, with a confident delivery of quality songs indicative of the elusive Caitlin Rose, but with it all coming together to make quite an exquisite collection of songs that gives Antonel a unique role in the country landscape.
Initially presenting herself under the name “The Ginger Cowgirl,” her origin story of growing up in a seaside suburb of San Diego and attending UC Berkeley isn’t exactly a harbinger for unbridled country music authenticity. But Antonel proved herself musically inclined early on, learning classical piano and jazz composition, and later fell madly in love with country music via 99 cent thrift store records and ultimately found her calling. You think it’s crazy being a ginger-headed classic country music freak living in San Diego? Try moving to Nashville as a Berkeley graduate to sing all those old country songs in bars. The anxieties and awkwardness, and the frustrations and experiences are what constitute the inspiration for Always The Outsider.
Even if you just come to this record for the music and instrumentation itself, you will leave sated. This album has all the requisite twang you desire from any country album, just served with a more distinctive ear indicative of both classic jazz and Western swing, but not wholly at the expense of a little honky tonk attitude. Stacy Antonel’s vision for the album is actualized by flatpicking champion Paul Sgroi, steel guitarist Doug Pettibone who’s played with just about everyone, and it’s all produced by Ben Moore who turns in one tasty effort.
Yet it’s the way Stacy Antonel’s heart cries out is what most compels you to listen, and intently. Her lyrical composition matches the music in prowess and potency. From her frustrations of not fitting in and failing to find traction in her musical career, to the pull and tug a romantic endeavors, Antonel takes a very literary approach to her writing that similar to the music, deftly avoids common tropes and crutch phrases. The melancholy is draped in the minor key. Manic moments are set to a quicker tempo. And no matter her origin story, Antonel makes for quite a convincing siren and chanteuse.
“Planetary Heartbreak” was the early single from this album that got some of us intrigued. Its lounge country style and waterfalling guitars compliments smart writing perhaps about falling in love with an extraterrestrial, or perhaps just the alien nature of some in the male species. “Texas Lasts Forever” is another good one, with interesting chord movements that will draw compliments from even the most critical of the Western swing crowd. “Heartbroken Tomorrow” is another great track from the record, but really, they all strive for your attention, and offer just the right blend of the unusual and familiar to keep your attention intent. Stacy Antonel’s voice is strong, but she also knows when to step aside and let the instrumentation help tell the story.
This album is bookended by diary entries about Stacy Antonel’s frustrations in the music industry and the demands of trying to fit in and conform. None of us can comfortably predict the commercial or popular outcomes of any album, especially one like this, aside from concluding that the appeal will be niche. But it sure sounds fresh and promising to this set of critical ears, breaking the monotony of predictable releases.
Stacy Antonel may not fit in easily anywhere. But Always The Outsider definitely fits alongside the other top-tier releases for 2022.
– – – – – – – – –