It’s always awesome to watch a great independent country band garner enough of a buzz to not only have their debut album sell exceptionally well for an act that size, but also to see them score a major label deal after that. No, I’m not talking about Sturgill Simpson. I’m actually once again traveling outside United States borders to talk about the British Country duo Ward Thomas. Made up of twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas, they originate from rural Hampshire and got their start in country music at a young age.
The duo’s debut album, From Where We Stand was released in the UK in 2014 (2015 over in my neck of the woods), and managed to create enough of a buzz for the duo. Really, I liked the album so much that it even ended up being one of my favorite albums of 2015. As such, I was excited when the duo announced a deal with Sony Music this past June to release their major label debut (and 2nd album overall), Cartwheels. So does it live up to the duo’s debut album?
If there’s one element that thankfully hasn’t changed about the duo, it’s their vocals. They can still harmonize really well and are great interpreters as well. I would say that they’re better at selling more serious and/or quieter tracks such as “Almost Easy”, “Where The Sky Is”, and “Safe”. They sound great on every song. To their credit, even some of the most overtly pop songs on this album at least have pretty decent melodies like “Lose Me”, but even the overall melodic hooks just seem lacking. Where things get rough is one the track “Boomerang” which really just feels like they’re straining to hit those high notes in the chorus. Again, not much to say in this department mostly because their vocals are the one element that Ward Thomas are still kicking ass in even if there’s not as much personality on these tracks as there were on their debut album.
We see the biggest change in the duo’s sound in the production. Now look, this isn’t a hurt country fan who wishes that Ward Thomas didn’t go full pop because, let’s get real here, Ward Thomas were never traditional country in the first place. But that’s what makes this all the more disappointing. From Where We Stand was an album that proved that pop-country could be witty, fun and actually pretty damn good. Cartwheels pretty much erases any memory of that. There’s honestly not much to say about it here either. It’s way too slick and polished for my personal tastes. And look, my issue isn’t that it’s pop. I have nothing against pop music at all. In fact, I like it more than I let on here. This type of production could work, but I just don’t hear any moment where it does anything to accentuate the overall good of any of these songs. The duo switches it up on more restrained tracks like “Where The Sky Is” or the pure acoustic album closer, “Safe” and surprise, surprise – they’re the best tracks here because they play beautifully to the duo’s softer vocal harmonies. I get that the purpose of the more polished, pop sound is to help expose Ward Thomas to a bigger market, I just wish they could do that with their old sound rather than this.
While the production will probably be the first thing that people notice is different about this album compared to their first one, I also think the unfortunate downgrade of their songwriting needs to be pointed out as well. Actually, it’s probably even more unfortunate than the production. I’ve gone on and on about how From Where We Stand is such a great album, and the reason for why that is has a lot to do with the duo’s songwriting. For two artists barely in their twenties, they showed a great deal of nuanced, greatly detailed, personal tales. Songs like “The Good and the Right” called out the modern music industry for lacking any songs with true weight while tracks like the title track and “Take That Train” told very rich, detailed stories. In other words, the themes were more diverse and filled to the brim with the duos tell it like it is personality.
Cartwheels is more straightforward, mostly because it’s trying to appeal to a mass audience more so than anything else. The front half of this album mostly features songs that mostly revolve around a love failing or the aftermath of it failing. The second hald, while more lyrically diverse frames many of the songs as finding good things in love. Toughing things out even when they’re at their worse. One exception is the lead off single “Carry You Home” which is just a pretty generic motivational song about being there for friends when they’re going through rough times. I really like the darker feel of “Almost Easy”, but the framing of the song just doesn’t make much sense at all. In it, our female narrator is telling the listener about a recent breakup, stating that it’s not just her lover that she’s losing, but the future plans she had in mind with him as well as his family (since they grew close to our narrator over the course of the relationship). She states that if she was only losing her ex, things would be so much easier. But since she’s losing all of the memories and future plans she had in mind, it’s harder. If the ex is involved with the future plans, how is it any easier to lose him as opposed to them? Wouldn’t you think that makes the ex the crown jewel of our narrator’s troubles?
Cartwheels isn’t without its songs that stand apart from the pack and are still good however. “Good On You” sounds a lot like Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”, but it’s about running into an old flame and seeing that they’ve moved on. More importantly, our narrator is happy for this old flame, painting a mature picture that shows two people getting on with their lives. “Safe” is easily the highlight about a woman who is hurt by a man (with implications of rape and other physical abuse). She takes comfort in her friend while her friend tells her she doesn’t have to worry. She’s safe with her. Yeah, it’s pretty much what “Carry You Home” should have been but wasn’t. And look, while I enjoy the message of a song like “When It’s Not Me”, the production is just way too much for me, which is sadly what I can say about a lot of these songs.
I really wanted to like Ward Thomas’ Cartwheels more than I do but I have to admit, this is definitely a step down from their excellent debut. I’m glad that they caught on to a wider audience, but it just frustrates me even more considering that their new sound isn’t what got them there in the first place. I still like Ward Thomas and I wish them all the best. Cartwheels really only comes recommended if you’re interested in seeing where Ward Thomas headed with this release, but otherwise, there’s not much here, and the sad part is I know they can do better.