Margo Price has gone full-blown soft rock on her latest album, All American Made,
which is clearly indebted to the clean production techniques and subtle musical experimentation of so many early ’70s country-rock albums.
It’s not just the smoothness of the album’s flow that leads to this sound. The harmonies of The Eagles are all over a lot of the tracks, with backup singers supporting Price’s vocals. Yet they are used sparingly. There’s also Cajun and Caribbean whispers to be heard on the accordion-led “Pay Gap”, and funk briefly rears its head on “Do Right By Me”, which could easily have been a ’70s Aretha track. “Don’t Say It” sounds for all the world like Dolly Parton singing, with Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano in the background. These musical touches, they’re all so… perfect.
So perfect I could scream. I like my music a little rougher around the edges
usually, but I am always willing to make exceptions, and to take good soft rock when I can find it – Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan, for instance. Yet though Price has managed to employ the same laser-sharp precision in the recording and editing as those bands, she doesn’t have either the expert songwriting of the former or the instrumental dexterity of the latter, at least not on this particular album (I greatly enjoyed the majority of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and also the overlooked Weakness EP). So she struggles to maintain an equally consistent fascination as those former soft rock heros.
Emblematic of her lack of success this time around is the collaboration with
Willie Nelson, “Learning to Lose”, where 6 minutes of intertwining with his
famously syncopated vocals and distinctive guitar-picking fails to light a spark.
She doesn’t have the emotional reach or technical accomplishment in her voice
to leap over the limited range that she’s been born with, in order to make a connection with the legendary singer sitting opposite her.
It’s a shame. And not the only missed opportunity. “Heart of America” and “Wild
Women” don’t get anywhere near to the core of their vast chosen subjects, although they get by quite nicely thank you very much without really challenging anyone in the process. “Nowhere Fast” could get to its nowhere even faster – even at 4 minutes, it feels too long.
I wish she had included her cover of “Paper Cowboy” from the Weakness EP, and
not just the title track, because its jam session vitality, running the gamut
from 60s psychedelia to prog-rock and trad-country, is far more electrifying than
any of the ‘experiments’ here.
But All American Made is still worth listening to, in particular for its statements of intent that emanate from an interesting female narrator (and warrior). Margo Price tackles the men and women who put her down for touring whilst raising a family, a charge hypocritically never levelled against male rock stars, on the otherwise repentant-about-touring “A Little Pain”. She refuses to put up with a man’s shit in the opening track, and then apologises for his having to put up with her shit on the next one. She gives the album’s title a compelling new meaning on the final track, where the list of things that are “All American Made” include weapons sold to the middle-east. Overall she sounds complicated, and when listening to the lyrics your attention is held.
The crowd of Nashville women is so very strong right now – Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Sunny Sweeney, and Kacey Musgraves in particular shine out – that Margo Price seems to be searching for a way to stand out from them. She manages to do so only partially on All American Made, and that’s when you listen to the lyrics. The experimental edge supposedly revealed in the music is a bit of a sham. The songs don’t reveal the nooks and crannies of the singer’s soul, the bits of it that words can’t access, like all good music is supposed to.
But keep an ear out. Price’s quick-witted enough to record a great album some day, if she only manages to cash in her talent on time. And those of us who care about country music will follow her all of the way until she does.