Review

Midland Mix Modern Country with Retro Style on Debut Album ‘On The Rocks’

Big Machine Records

If you haven’t heard about Midland yet, well, what exactly have you been up to? One of country’s buzziest bands, the Texas trio completely turned country radio on its head with their debut single “Drinkin’ Problem.”

A neo-traditional song in the vein of Gary Stewart, the expertly written song went to No. 1 on the charts. And it did it while sounding like absolutely nothing else in the space. They also released a five song EP in Oct. 2016, winning over critics and building Nashville cred.

Now, the band’s much-anticipated debut record On The Rocks is here. Does it meet the high bar set by the first single?

Southwestern Style

The Midland men met in California and first jammed in Wyoming, but the band itself came to be in Texas. Bass player Cameron Duddy has an eye for the visual, while guitarist Jess Carson brings a natural songwriting touch. Mark Wystrach’s unique vocal timbre and phrasing rounds out one of the more complete bands to hit the mainstream.

The whole package combines that Bakersfield, Calif. country vibe with Texas edge, creating a bit of a “Southwestern” aesthetic. And the classically tailored 1970s era getups they often sport really helps drive the point home.

Without a doubt, there’s nothing like the band in modern country. And that’s partially because they created a vision so rooted in a late 1970s era of country. Which, it should be noted, was about the third wave of pop country, buoyed by artists like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. So the real magic of On The Rocks is how it manages to feel modern while still feeling traditional.

More Than a Fad

Fans have already heard five of the thirteen album tracks on the EP. But even then, some wondered how genuine the trio’s sound really was. Pretty much all doubt should leave listeners’ minds about a minute into album opener “Lonely For You Only.”

It may be the most traditional country song on the entire record, and they hit you with it right off the bat. From the lonesome pedal steel and acoustic guitar flourishes to Wystrach’s yodel-adjacent wail, it’s a ballsy way to sequence a record. But it pays off when it transitions to the a cappella intro to “Make A Little,” and then again to lead single “Drinkin’ Problem.” As minor as it sounds in the day and age of singles, the track order for this record really flows well. It’s one of the little things that elevates On The Rocks above the average debut record.

Another elevation: the seventh track, “More Than A Fever.” It’s one of the most well-written love songs on the record, but it’s also the first time Wystrach moves into his falsetto. It’s a hidden gem and a nice addition about halfway into the record, when you think you’ve pretty much got the band figured out.

On The Rocks, On Top

Midland has some exciting things happening. For starters, they’re going on the road with Little Big Town and Kacey Musgraves in 2018. That’s a hell of a bill, and if they’re appearance on Jimmy Fallon is any indication, it’s going to be a lot of fun.

READ MORE: Little Big Town Announces 2018 Tour with Kacey Musgraves, Midland

But don’t be surprised if the band also notches a No. 1 country album with On The Rocks. Or at the very least a top 5. Realistically, the only way Midland doesn’t make it to the top of the chart is if Thomas Rhett‘s monster album Life Changes keeps selling like hotcakes.

Regardless of what happens, Midland has a lot to be proud of. When they first traveled to Nashville from Texas to hook up with co-manger Jason Owen and songwriters/producers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, the band had a handful of demos and collectively decades of failed attempts at other musical endeavors. Midland became the first truly cohesive, thematic group any of them had been a part of.

In modern country, the industry talks about praising artists who aren’t afraid to be different. But they also want to package you and box you in with others. They want to compare you and tell you to be more like something that’s already successful. For Midland to create something as unique as they did, while still achieving the success most artists only dream of, is a truly impressive feat.

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Midland Mix Modern Country with Retro Style on Debut Album ‘On The Rocks’