Song Review: Midland, “Sunrise Tells The Story”

Because it wouldn’t be a year in country music without them.

Midland may remain a favorite act of this blog, but it’s been almost two years since they last appeared in a review (“Cheatin’ Songs” was released back in January of 2020), and nearly three years since they made any meaningful impact on the radio (“Burn Out” hit #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart in March of 2019; they haven’t even cracked the Top 20 since). This isn’t to say, however, that the band hasn’t been active: Since “Cheatin’ Songs” first appeared, the group has released a live album, a documentary with accompanying soundtrack, and eventually an EP The Last Resort that feels like either a prelude to or a stand-in for a third studio album. “Sunrise Tells The Story” was chosen to be the project’s first radio release, and it’s a nice addition to their discography that captures the post-euphoria shock and buzz of the day after an unexpected tryst.

I’ve gone after a lot of tracks for their basic guitar-and-drum mixes, but you could level the same charge against the production here as well, so why does this mix succeed where others fail? Let’s start with the time signature, as slower 3/4 tracks are pretty rare these days (I might call this 6/8 rather than 3/4, but that’s a nitpicky distinction). The instrument tones play a role as well, with the guitars and drums featuring a slightly rougher tone and texture that evoke the group’s traditional-leaning sound more than the slicker mixes of modern times. (The steel guitar isn’t as prominent as it is in Scotty McCreery’s “Damn Strait,” but it gets enough screen time to leave its mark on the sound instead of feeling token.) While the vibe of the song feels too neutral to help the listener feel something, in this case it’s actually the point: There’s a sense of numb bewilderment to this sound, accentuating the fact that no one really knows if what transpired was a good thing or a bad thing. There’s a real sense of atmosphere to this mix: Rather than passing judgement, the mix gives you the sense that you’re surveying the aftermath of a chaotic event, letting you feel the unease in the air rather than just telling you about it. This is a messy moment for everyone involved, and the producer does a nice job transporting the listener into the moment, giving them the facts, and letting them draw their own conclusion. In other words, it’s a very different sound and approach from many tracks on the radio today, and it helps the track stand out from its peers and draw people into the story.

I had some issues with lead singer Mark Wystrach’s performance on “Cheatin’ Songs,” but he rebounds nicely on a track with a deceptively-high degree of difficulty. The band has created a roguish image for themselves that lets them fits comfortably into the rowdier part of barroom life while lending them credibility for the hard-earned perspective they get in the aftermath, and this song requires both sides of this coin to be believable. Wystrach’s easy charm and smooth delivery do much of the heavy lifting here: His past work makes you believe his character would absolutely stumble into a night like this (he was “Mr. Lonely,” after all), but he’s able to take a step back here and survey the scene objectively—he’s neither too high or too low about what happened—in a way that makes him seem genuine and even sympathetic, especially as he wonders if the one-night stand could become something more. The primary feeling here seems to be shock, as if the narrator is still feeling the effects of the encounter and is a bit surprised at what happened, and Wystrach’s distanced tenor (mixed with a small drop of disbelief) meshes well with the mood set by the production. (As usual, the band contributes solid harmony and instrument work for the track—one of the benefits of having a standout sound is that it justifies the band’s place on the payroll!) It’s a solid overall performance from the trio, and it makes the song feel more compelling as a result.

I really like the lyrics here for a couple of reasons:

  • The one-night stand story here is nothing new in country music, but the narrator’s attitude is refreshing: No blame is cast, no buck is passed, and no spin is spun—the narrator is processing the scene at the same time as we are, and they take a just-the-facts approach to allow us to draw our conclusions, and they neither dodge culpability for the event nor critique the other person for causing it to happen.
  • The level of detail is amazing (especially in the opening verse), painting the picture of a messy, chaotic scene that the audience can sink their collective teeth into and visualize. Unlike the “ineffectively vague” songs we usually get, this is a story that the listener isn’t expected to have experienced, so we get the full breakdown to be able to place ourselves on the scene.
  • Yes, it’s an ephemeral one-night stand and even the narrator admits that, but there’s something endearing about the way the narrator expresses their preferences on the bridge (“don’t know where it’s going, I just want you to stay”). This may have started as a no-strings-attached meeting and may yet end that way, but there’s something about this part that really humanizes the narrator and makes you wonder if there might be more to the story in the end.

It’s not a perfect piece (for one thing, the writers tried to cram too many syllables on some of the lines), but it’s a well-told story that grabs the listener’s attention.

“Sunrise Tells The Story” is a good song that stands up to the best stuff on the radio right now, and while I have no illusions that the industry will give it the time of day, it’s cool to see that Midland is sticking to their guns and taking a new old approach to catch our attention. It’s not really a positive or negative song, but through thoughtful writing, understated production, and a well-executed vocal performance, the trio turns an ambiguous fling into gripping theater that keeps people turning the pages to see what comes next. What comes next for Midland may be anybody’s guess (hopefully The Last Resort gets expanded into a full LP, although I’m not all that enamored by some of the EP tracks), but for my money they’re still doing the right things, even if they aren’t rewarded for it.

Rating: 7/10. Technically this is the lowest score Midland has ever gotten here, but that says more about the tougher scale I seem to be using this year than anything else. Go check this one out.

Song Review: Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs”

Let’s get 2020 started off on the right foot, shall we?

First, we need to start our Midland review with the usual disclaimer:

In other words, anything I say about this group has to be taken with at least a tablespoon of salt. However, these numbers suggest the teeniest, tiniest hint of a downward trend over time, a drop that has been much more pronounced on the radio: “Mr. Lonely” spent much of 2019 climbing Billboard’s airplay chart only to peak at a mediocre #23. What seemed to be a promising trend back towards traditional sounds in the genre has now been mostly washed away by Boyfriend country, pulling the rug out from under Midland just as they were doubling down on their throwback sound. There’s really nothing on Let It Roll that fits in with the current trend, so the trio went for the next-best thing and set the time machine dial to the early 1980s for “Cheatin’ Songs,” a slicker, Urban Cowboy-esque take on the classic cheating song. It’s arguably my favorite track on Let It Roll, and features more of the sharp construction and execution that Midland has become known for. After waiting nearly nine months for someone to truly reach out and grab the best-song mantle last year, we’ve got a contender very early in the game this time around.

The more I listen to Midland, the more impressed I am with their flexibility as a band, as they’re able to effortlessly pivot their production to capture a specific sort of sound from country music’s past. Here, we’re transported back to the slicker, pop-tinged sound of early eighties artists like Eddie Rabbitt and Sylvia, as the song opens with with a super-clean electric guitar, wood-block percussion that eventually segues into a full drum set, and a bass that’s reminds me a lot of the bass from “Nobody” despite the instrument here being deeper, a bit less bouncy, and nowhere near as synthetic-sounding. Steel guitar is added early and often to the mix (heck, it’s even name-checked in the lyrics), and you’ll hear a Wurlitzer piano floating around in the background as well. The result is a bit contradictory (brighter instrument tones and a decent tempo, but also a ton of minor chords), but they’re blended together well enough to give listeners a sense of the narrator’s concern while still having that catchy, upbeat sound that draws the audience to the story. It’s a nice throwback to an oft-maligned era in country music, and despite the narrator’s paranoia, it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

Lead singer Mark Wystrach brings his A game to the table once again, although I feel like you can start to pick some nits here. The contradiction inherent in the production is a bit bigger issue here: Neither Wystrach’s range, flow, and power are really (it’s all about how well he can sell himself as a suspicious lover/amateur detective), but he’s caught between going along with the more-upbeat feel of the production and injecting enough seriousness into the narrator to be believable in the role. I actually think he does a pretty good job walking the line (especially since the role here is about as far away from the “Mr. Lonely” character as you could imagine), but he errs a bit towards the production’s side, which limits how sad his delivery sounds and how much sympathy he generates. It’s still a solid performance given the circumstances and doesn’t detract from the track’s overall vibe (and the harmony work is still standout), but Wystrach isn’t able to throw himself into the role the way he did with “Mr. Lonely,” and that colors the impression the song leaves on the audience.

The lyrics are a nice combination of an time-honored topic with enough wit tossed in to make things feel fresh (and it doesn’t hurt that cheatin’ songs have almost disappeared from the radio, making this relatively unique for the current radio climate). Whereas “Mr. Lonely” was a party in a box for any lady who wished to join him, the narrator here is one of those poor slobs that was warned to “treat her right,” and is now starting to put together evidence that suggests their partner is stepping out on them. Much of the evidence is exactly what you’d expect (smoky and provocative clothing, evasive non-answers, not staying in touch), but there are enough solid turns of phrase (“the kind of hurt that gets you singin’ along,” “if you saw the way she ain’t lookin’ at me”) and references to classic sounds and subject (they’re right, “steel guitars are back in style” (emphasis added) and”it’s been a while since country music loved a fool”) to make the song feel less like a retread and more like a call to action: Bring more songs like this to the radio! (Although it’s ironic that the narrator is accusing their partner of “bringin’ back cheatin’ songs” when it’s the narrator’s tune itself that’s actually aiming to do that.) This is yet another example of “old done well” being as good as “new,” and the marriage of sound and subject adds just enough fun to the equation to make the song easy to listen to.

“Cheatin’ Songs” is a very good bet to be on my “Best Songs of 2020” list, and it’s place will be well deserved. The production is suitably atmospheric and dated, the lyrics take a classic trope and spin it enough to make it interesting, and the vocals are strong enough to (mostly) avoid the pitfall of a sound/subject clash. It’s a great track that I’d even put a notch above “Mr. Lonely,” and while I’m really not sure what’s in store for Midland in 2020 after placing what now looks like a bad bet on the state on the genre (curse you, Dan + Shay!), at least they’re taking their best shot at regaining some radio traction, not to mention showing the world that they and their retro stylings aren’t going down without a fight.

Rating: 9/10. The gauntlet is thrown down early. Does anyone dare to pick it up?

Song Review: Midland, “Mr. Lonely”

Hey, when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

At this point, I’m probably the last person whose word you should trust on a Midland single:

So yeah, I’ve drank a lot of Midland kool-aid over the past two years. The radio’s reaction, however, has been a bit more tempered, and after “Burn Out” peaked at #3 after a forty-plus-week chart climb (and then dropped like a rock immediately afterwards), I was left with one lingering question: What will the band’s next single sound like? The old-school sound that the group showcased on On The Rocks hadn’t exactly set the world on fire, so would they double down and stick with their current sound, or would they change things up and try to blend in more with mainstream Nashville?

“Mr. Lonely,” the group’s presumed leadoff single for their second album, is a definitive declaration that the group is sticking to their guns. Everything I loved about the trio’s first few singles is present and accounted for here, and while this song is more of a spiritual successor to “Make A Little” than the other two tracks (in fact, a cynic might say that they’re basically the same song), Midland and Big Machine have decided that the formula is enough of a winner to stick with it, and when the result is this enjoyable, I am totally on board.

I called “Make A Little” “an uptempo, brightly-toned mix that generates a ton of positive energy, and it feels tailor-made for bringing people out onto the dance floor of a dusty old honky-tonk,” and “Mr. Lonely” is…honestly, the more I listen to the two songs back-to-back, the more they sound like the same darn song. The big differences I notice are these:

  • “Make A Little” tend to feature instruments a bit more individually, drooping to sticks-only percussion to open the choruses and turning the electric guitar loose on the bridge solo. In “Mr. Lonely,” the instruments tend to stick together, with only the steel guitar stepping out to perform a surprisingly lively solo (I don’t think Hank did it that way, but I don’t think he’d complain either).
  • “Mr. Lonely” adds a couple of keyboards to the arrangement, giving a barroom piano some time to shine (especially on the second verse) and mixing an organ into the background. I like the addition, as they fit nicely into the honky-tonk atmosphere and give the mix some additional flavor.
  • Despite the tempos being similar (if not the exact same), “Mr. Lonely” seems to have a bit more pep in its step, possibly because the drums are a bit more prominent in the mix this time around.

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to make a choice, I think I’d give a slight edge to “Mr. Lonely” for its extra energy and instrumentation. This is a song that’s meant to move you physically rather than emotionally, and it succeeds on every level.

Vocally…look, I’m pretty much out of platitudes to describe lead singer Mark Wystrach’s performance at this point. His smooth, charismatic delivery is as smooth and charismatic as ever, but he also demonstrates a knack for adding a rouch-edge punch to his voice at the right moment to drive a point and/or syllable home. His range and flow aren’t really tested here (while there’s a point on the bridge where he stumbles a bit trying to cram too many words into a line, I blame the awkward phrasing of the lyrics for that); all he’s asked to do is sell the narrator as the goodest of good-time Charlies, and he pulls it off without breaking a sweat. The band’s harmonies are as strong as ever, and while they’re not as poignant as they were on “Burn Out,” they’re just as fun and lively as they were on “Make A Little.” In the end, they don’t just transmit the fun to the audience, they stuff them in George Strait’s honky-tonk time machine and transport them back to an old-school barroom and stick them on the mechanical bull.

Lyrically, this is basically an advertisement for “Mr. Lonely,” a fun-loving narrator on-call for anyone looking for love, laughter, and lighthearted fun out on the town (think the guy from George Strait’s “The Fireman,” but as a private contractor). Unlike Strait’s most recent hit “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” this song focuses more on the people rather than the place. Although the description of the line-dancing denizens may have been a bit boilerplate (then again, I haven’t heard a P.T.A. reference since John Conlee’s “Domestic Life”), referring to the narrator’s nightly outings as if it were an actual job (“I’m booked up through November,” “how the blues are “keeping me in business”) was pretty clever, and the “number that you know by broken heart” was a nice twist on a classic line. What’s most impressive, however, is how this song talks about all the same things that a lot of shallow, sleazier tracks do, and yet manages to stay out of the gutter. (For example, LoCash wants to party just as much as this dude, but I’d chill with Mr. Lonely a hundred times before giving LoCash the time of day.) Things get a little dicey on the bridge when the narrator hinted at stealing peoples’ girlfriends, but I really never felt the slimy vibe that I’ve gotten from so many recent country tracks. The narrator is just here if anyone needs him, and is looking for fun rather than trouble. Throw in a believable singer and some suitable production, and you’ve got a lively track that knows it strengths and doesn’t try to be something it isn’t.

Just like with “Burn Out” and “Drinkin’ Problem,” one could argue that “Mr. Lonely” is just a repeat of “Make A Little” and really doesn’t need to exist. My response both then and now is that quality is its own justification, and that while hammering on the same topic over and over will eventually start to wear on folks (see: Thomas Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her”) Midland basically has the classic country lane to themselves right now, and it’s going to be a while before the world starts asking “What else you got?” (And just like Kelsea Ballerini, there’s a lot more hidden in the trio’s album cuts that they can draw upon when needed.) The sound is solid and satisfies the context test, the writing is clever enough to freshen an older topic, and Midland features some of the best, most believable vocals in the business right now. Why would you ever want less of that?

Rating: 8/10. Don’t miss this one.

Song Review: Midland, “Burn Out”

Good grief, could these guys steal my Song of the Year award again?

Midland struck gold with their debut single “Drinkin’ Problem,” establishing themselves as the latest face of the traditionalist movement within country music. However, their follow-up single “Make A Little” didn’t make nearly as big a splash: I noted that the song “isn’t written for critics,” but it turned out the song wasn’t written for anyone at all, hitting a wall on Billboard’s airplay chart and settling for a disappointing #15 peak. Faced with the prospect of ceding their title as a traditionalist leader (and honestly, who’s left to pick it the mantle at this point? Jon Pardi? Ashley McBryde? Cole Swindell!?), Midland brought out the big guns for single #3 from On The Rocks: “Burn Out,” a sad, mid-tempo tune in the vein of “Drinkin’ Problem” that features old-school production, strong harmonies, and sharp writing. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and will probably challenge for the title of my favorite single of 2018.

The production gives off the same 70s-era barroom vibe that “Drinkin’ Problem” did, and features most of the same instruments: a pair of guitars carrying the melody (an acoustic on the verses, an electric stepping up on the chorus), some steel guitar for atmospheric stabs and a haunting solo, a piano doing some rhythmic chord work, and a real drum set laying a foundation for the whole thing. The track features a plethora of minor chords (in fact, they outnumber the major ones) that take some of the shine off of the instrument tones and create a sad, somber mood, complementing the lyrics while taking great care not to get in their way. The way the mix uses all these elements to set a last-call, last-smoke atmosphere is really impressive, and probably accounts for a fair chunk of this band’s appeal.

As far as vocal analyses go, you might as well go back and read what I said about Mark Wystrach and his bandmates in my “Drinkin’ Problem” review, because everything I said then applies now: Wystrach’s smooth, charismatic delivery, the mastery of what admittedly isn’t a technically-demanding song, and the strong harmony work. (I will, however, single out the choral harmonies on “Burn Out” for special recognition, as they feel especially poignant and moving on this track relative to “Drinkin’ Problem.”) The trio has found an effective formula to connect with listeners and let them share in their pain and joy, and with the exception of one or two tracks on On The Rocks, they don’t mess with it.

The narrator is basically the same person that was crying into his beer on “Drinkin’ Problem,” except they’ve picked up a nasty cigarette habit to boot, watching them “burn out” and relating the process to a gone-too-soon romance. What makes me put “Burn Out” above “Drinkin’ Problem,” however, is that the writing feels a lot sharper and wittier. The imagery is both vivid and unique (“Watching rivers run/down the side of my bottle/It’s almost like they’re crying my tears”), and while using a cigarette for a romantic analogy isn’t unheard of (see: Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby”), the writers seem to do a lot more with than most songs, comparing the desire for another smoke to the constant need to find a romantic partner and noting that those that play too close the flame “got no right to complain” if they get burned. (I also like how they at least change the wording from what you might expect; you don’t “get burned,” but “you know it’s gonna leave a mark.”) The whole thing feels a bit more specific and personal than “Drinkin’ Problem,” and as good at that track was, that’s really saying something.

I recognize that a cynic (or someone who’s sore about my LoCash review) could raise the point that “Hey, this and ‘Drinkin’ Problem’ are basically the same song; why do we need two of them?” My response is that “Drinkin’ Problem” was the best single released in 2017, and that you can never get enough of quality tracks like this. I enjoyed everything about this track, from the sound to the singers, and it’ll be a clear favorite for my Song of the Year title…right up until they release “Out Of Sight.” 😉

Rating: 10/10. Alan Jackson‘s got some company at the top.

Song Review: Midland, “Make A Little”

Much like Kirby in Kirby: Battle Royale, Midland’s toughest rival in the fight for my favorite song of 2017 just may be themselves.

Midland’s debut single “Drinkin’ Problem” got off to a fast start early in its chart run, but stalled once it neared the summit and ended up settling for a Medibase #1 (it peaked at #3 on Billboard). I’ve got a feeling this track will be one of those rare songs whose longevity defies its ranking (fun fact: Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby” was also only a #3 hit in its day), as it was a refreshing, unabashed throwback to the classic country sound of the 70s and 80s. So how do you follow up a song like that? The band’s answer is “Make A Little,” a goofy little sex jam that’s way more fun than you’d expect.

The production here an interesting mixture of both neotraditional and Bakersfield sounds, with methodical, hard-hitting (real) percussion as its foundation and a rollicking electric guitar carrying the melody. (The only other instrument of note here is the steel guitar, which is generously sprinkled on top for flavor.) It’s an uptempo, brightly-toned mix that generates a ton of positive energy, and it feels tailor-made for bringing people out onto the dance floor of a dusty old honky-tonk. It’s a great fit for both the song’s writing and for country radio in general, as there haven’t been a lot of artists plowing this ground in the last several decades. In short, it’s unique, it’s retro, and above all it’s fun as heck.

As far as the vocals go, I could probably just cut-and-paste my analysis from “Drinkin’ Problem” here. Lead singer Mark Wystrach is back with his effortless, earnest delivery, and he deftly pivots from the somber narrator of the group’s last single to the charming, playful character required here. (The upward inflections on the closing statements on the chorus are a nice touch.) “Make A Little” isn’t a technically-demanding song by any means—nobody’s rapping or breaking into their falsetto—but Wystrach does a great job selling the song, and the group’s harmonies sound as good as ever. Like I said back in February, “these guys sound good.”

I never thought I’d describe the lyrics of a country song as “campy,” but it’s the best fit I could find for “Make A Little.” The song is a sex jam at its core, with the narrator asking their significant other if they’d like to make out (phrased as “make a little [love]”), but instead of going in a sexy, sultry definition like most every other song on this subject, Midland strikes a tone similar to Garth Brooks’s “Let Lay Down And Dance,” and frames the foreplay as a fun, playful activity (which is a woefully underexplored angle—after all, isn’t the biggest reason people have sex is because it’s enjoyable?) The lyrics can be cliché, silly, and downright nonsensical at times (and sometimes they’re all three at once), but they establish a loose, lighthearted atmosphere that resonates with its listeners and makes them smile. (Also, the Alabama references feel more appropriate here than they would in other songs, mostly because this song actually feels like a song Alabama would sing.) It’s not going to move people emotionally like “Drinkin’ Problem,” but it will certainly move them physically, especially when combined with its dance-hall-ready production.

“Make A Little” isn’t a song written for critics, and thus it doesn’t quite reach the (obscenely high) bar set by its predecessor. What it is, however, is a good-time, old-school track that’s probably the most fun you’ll have listening to a song all year. Midland’s debut album On The Rocks hits store shelves today, and between this song and “Drinkin’ Problem,” it’s an absolute must-buy for me.

Rating: 8/10. It’s more than worth your time.

Song Review: Midland, “Drinkin’ Problem”

As much as I dislike living in Texas, I’ve got to give this state one thing: They’ve got some excellent country music down here. Anyone who doesn’t believe me needs to listen to this song.

Midland is an “Austin-area” trio (Dripping Springs, to be exact) that joined the Big Machine label back in 2016, and are making no bones about their preferences for old-school country sounds and songs. With the winds of the genre blowing away from the Bro-Country/Metropolitan sound and towards more traditional themes and instruments, the group dropped a well-received EP late last year, and are now set to release “Drinkin’ Problem” as their debut single.

Production-wise, this song lives up to its billing, with a blend of guitars (both electric and steel) and real drums that is undeniably catchy and goes down easy. (Seriously, it’s as if Midland recorded the song in 1985 and sent it here in a time machine.) The tempo is relaxed, the sound is smooth and restrained, and the guitars have just the right amount of texture to set the proper mood. Jason Aldean take note: This is how you balance bright, devil-may-care tones with minor key melancholy.

Vocally, lead singer Mark Wystrach has a smooth, easy delivery, and while the song doesn’t ask him to do much in terms of showcasing his range and power, he demonstrates a lot of charisma and absolutely owns the heartbroken role of the song’s narrator. For the sake of comparison, not only does Wystrach’s voice remind me a little bit of Zac Brown, but the trio’s tight harmonies are as well-executed as anything ZBB has done. Simply put, these guys sound good.

The song’s theme of drinking away a lost love while ignoring the judgement of those around them has been covered by every singer in the genre’s history, but Midland (all three band members are co-writers here) brings a little wit to the table. There’s nothing jarring or offensive here, just the lament of a man content to drink his nights away in lieu of confronting his sadness. The verses are a bit simple but still flow well, and the wordplay on the chorus (especially the hook) is actually pretty clever. Despite ostensibly being a sad song, it always leaves a smile on my face when it’s over.

Overall, “Drinkin’ Problem” is an incredible song performed by some incredibly talented entertainers. The time was right for a group like Midland to take the stage and remind people how great old-school country can be, and with any luck, these guys will get the William Michael Morgan treatment and ride their debut single all the way to the top.

Rating: 9/10. Easton Corbin still gets the nod for my favorite song of 2017, but “Drinkin’ Problem” is a close second. Definitely check this one out!