The music business is a cut-throat, kick you on your ass kind of system. There are millions of artists out there who face the struggles of trying to make any semblance of a name for themselves in the music world. If you want to make it in the big time however, there are certain rules you have to play by, rules that are prevalent to us Country and Americana fans but are also prevalent across all genres. One of these rules is giving your major record label exactly what they want even if it doesn’t line up with what you want to give them.
This unfair system of appeasing the labels is often thought to be exclusive to mainstream country music, a land that is full of label and radio politics. Some artists try to keep up with trends as well as give their label the catchy songs they need for the radio. It totally excludes any artistry and often will get artists very deservingly frustrated.
This brings us to our artist in question today, Austin Lucas. Austin has had his latest album, Between The Moon and the Midwest ready to go for awhile now, but according to his former label New West Records, the album wasn’t good enough, nor did the label hear any potential singles off of it. An Americana label demanding singles of all things from an artist? I think I speak for most Americana fans when I say we didn’t start listening to the genre purely to hear singles. Alas, that’s the tale that ensued. Austin has reached a happy album however as his latest album is now in the hands of fans everywhere thanks to Last Chance Records, and it is most certainly a triumphant return.
Austin’s music has always resided on the borders between traditional country and rock, fusing the two together in a way that transcends both genres. Between The Moon and the Midwest is largely a reflective album, with many themes centering around cheating as well as dying love and growing up. There’s a spacier texture to this album that hasn’t been seen on previous Austin Lucas albums. One comparison that has crossed a lot of critics minds is Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. I can agree with that, however this isn’t Austin Lucas making a psychedelic rock record in the same vein as Metamodern. This is Austin experimenting and inviting all who dare enter.
Austin’s triumphant return is encapsulated all within the opening track of “Unbroken Hearts” with a theme of not giving up and facing adversity head on. Of course, this album isn’t afraid to shed a light on the hard subject matter such as tracks such as “Wrong Side Of The Dream” or “Pray For Rain” which seems to be a healing song. Some of this pain is met head on with very fun, energetic production and instrumentation like on “The Flame” and “Call The Doctor”. The former begins with a ghostly moan before erupting into a honky-tonker about a man who knows his lover has been cheating on him. The latter track is a man who needs help to cope with his pain but refuses to let anyone help him, claiming that there is no way to save him. The only track that doesn’t seem to experiment somewhat is the stripped down acoustic track “William” which tells of a man who sleeps with his best friend’s wife only to learn from that wife that his friend William is not the same person Austin once knew. It’s an interesting track that really requires a listen for yourself to understand.
Austin is joined by several friends all over the album including John Moerland on the country-rocker “Ain’t We Free” as well as Dani Flowers on “Pray For Rain”, and Cory Branan on “Call The Doctor”. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned everyone. Kelly Smith joins Lucas on “Kristi Rae”, a character who is quite prevalent on this album and is one of Austin’s characters who is symbolic of something more, most likely something personal in Austin’s life. Smith also joins Lucas on the album highlight “Next To You” which features a fantastic darker sound accompanied by some great bass guitar riffs. Lydia Loveless joins Lucas on “Wrong Side Of The Dream”, a stunner of a song that captures the realities of being away from home while out on the road and realizing that there’s no love left in your marriage at home. The steel guitar in this track does a great job of capturing the emotion of two people realizing there’s nothing left for them. Now of course, you could argue that Austin goes a little too far in the guest department, especially when some songs don’t really require guest vocalists even if the songs themselves are quite good. I’d also argue that while the album is sonically cohesive, the lyrical and thematical aspect can get a little mixed up, referring back to the characters of Kristi Rae and William sometimes without connecting the stories.
But Between The Moon and the Midwest is most certainly another fantastic album to add onto Austin’s discography. The instrumentation and production are stunning and cohesive and the songwriting is pretty sharp as well. Between The Moon and the Midwest took a longtime to get here, but now that it’s here we can celebrate in one of 2016’s best albums thus far. It’s good to have Austin back and be able to release the album he’d been waiting to release for far too long.
Best Tracks: “The Flame”, “Wrong Side of The Dream”, “Next To You”