Album/Video Review – Midland’s “The Sonic Ranch”

Flint, Michigan-native Whitey Morgan is the closest thing we’ve seen to a true country music Outlaw bred in the last 20 years, and with his excellent back band the 78’s, they walk into the infamous Sonic Ranch studio in far West Texas and crush a bunch of new originals and tastefully-selected cover songs in this excellent album of …

Oh wait, we’re not talking about the Whitey Morgan album released in 2015 called Sonic Ranch? This couldn’t be yet another instance of underwear model Mark Wystrach, millionaire Cameron Duddy, and Oregonian Jess Carson looking to siphon off the authenticity of actual country bands to bolster their origin story by piggy backing off the mystique of The Sonic Ranch recording complex now, could it? Come to think of it, The Adobe Sessions by Cody Jinks also makes direct reference to the Sonic Ranch recording studio.

Actually, that’s probably not what’s going on here at all. Since this Midland album was recorded in the spring of 2014, the timing doesn’t really line up for it to be a rip off of anybody. But it definitely is the trio’s latest dogged attempt to delve deep into their origin story and embellish it as if this is the greatest selling point for the band as opposed to arguably their biggest liability, resulting in some labeling them as The Monkees of country music.

I listened to the entirety of The Sonic Ranch album by Midland and watched all of the 45-minute documentary so you don’t have to. It’s not that it’s terrible, or in any way offensive. For what it is, it’s fine, and you can’t approach either the album or the film as if these were finished products polished up for wide public consumption. If that was the premise, they both would probably deserve failing grades. But instead the idea here is to give you a raw and unvarnished look into the early formation of this band and their fledgling efforts at music making.

Comprised of rough tracks cobbled together from eleven days hacking away at songs they had never really performed together before, The Sonic Ranch sort of feels like an exercise in musical futility, verified when you watch the accompanying video footage. There’s little plan or direction, few drum tracks and instead claps and shakers suffice, and the entire thing sounds unmixed, unmastered, and put away wet. There is a reason this material has remained buried for six years, and stuff like this is rarely released widely by any band or artist as they try to figure out their sound. Still, there can be a charm to crude work tape recordings, and The Sonic Ranch has its moments.

It’s a bit strange to release something like this mid career. Really this is something more for when a band calls it quits, one of the members dies in a boating accident or something, or as a career retrospective. If Midland were The Grateful Dead or The Allman Brothers with a legion of audiophiles out there looking to get their hands on anything they’ve ever recorded, it would make more sense. Instead this feels like yet another COVID-19 pandemic release by bored musicians looking to keep their name in the media.

That’s not to say there’s nothing of value here though, especially if you’re a diehard Midland fan. “Fourteen Gears” has always been one of the band’s best songs, and there’s nothing bad about the more raw version of it here. “Cowgirl Blues” probably isn’t a bad song either, and hearing both Mark Wystrach and Jess Carson take their swings at it may be a fun exercise for hardcore Midland fans. “Champagne for the Pain” is a good song idea, though it needs some reworking.

Sifting through this refuge pile of rough cuts may not be a complete waste of time. But you have to be patient, and you have to know what you’re looking for, and you have to really be a fan of Midland to make it worth your while. Some fans may appreciate the roughness of it all, though this doesn’t feel like one of those moments when there’s no expectations and you accidentally capture magic. More than anything, The Sonic Ranch underscores just what a debt of gratitude this troika owes to producers and songwriters Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne for helping to mold them into the Midland we know of today, which is one of the better, and one of the more country acts in the mainstream.

If nothing else, The Sonic Ranch is yet another sign that the otherwise ultra-restrictive environment of Music Row is beginning to loosen up. Whether it’s this project, Miranda Lambert’s The Marfa Tapes with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram comprised of scratch tracks recorded on an iPhone, or even the recent Carly Pearce album 29 that seemed to be “out of cycle” from the norm of mainstream country releases, artists are being allowed to play some of these wild cards, and it potentially has the effect of helping to open the music up more.

With Midland’s last two singles failing to scale the Top 20 barrier, and their burden of being too country for the mainstream, but not country or authentic enough for many independent fans, they’re sort of in a no man’s land of country music. Making use of some old work tape studio material, and releasing a 45-minute documentary that really doesn’t address with any clarity the band’s mission—or even their origin story as it was sold to do—is unlikely to move the needle for them one way or another.

But hell, they were sitting on the stuff, and decided now is as good of a time as any to let loose of it. It’s a snapshot in time whose greatest value may be as an archival work instead of a vehicle for great entertainment. But devout fans of the band will probably love it, and that’s ultimately who it’s for.


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