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Greetings from...The Marfa Tapes: Let Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall be your tour guides on this sonic retreat
I have to admit, when I first heard about this project, a number of preconceptions began floating through my head. A trio of songwriters recording a series of live, demo-style songs in a remote, West Texas town, with audio of laughter, slip-ups and even cows mooing in the distance being kept in the final versions?
We’ve been here before, where artists eschew the commercial, radio-friendly route in favour of a more authentic project of ‘pure songwriting’. However, if handled in the wrong way, the result can often come across as a publicity gimmick, or worse, as an exercise in self-indulgence, with obtuse lyrics that critics pretend to understand, but that only really make sense to the artists.
But make no mistake - The Marfa Tapes, a collaboration between Country icon Miranda Lambert and her frequent songwriting partners, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, does not fall into any of the aforementioned traps. The group produce a songwriting masterclass, and the rough audio quality only serves to enhance the project, bringing a sense of old-timey nostalgia and charm to the recordings.
The tracks often end with snippets of banter between the trio, and their close friendship shines throughout the project, bringing a level of musical intimacy that is rarely found, even in established bands.
Highlights of the album include the opening two tracks, ‘In His Arms’ and ‘I Don’t Like It’, which play as lonesome odes to a missed partner. The fact that Lambert, Ingram and Randall have all been on the scene for around two decades enables them to add an emotional depth and almost wearied wisdom to the lyrical content.
The general arc of the project is one of lost love, and this does give the majority of The Marfa Tapes a melancholic air. The gentle sorrow of the lyrics coupled with a simple, strummed guitar brings a sense of peacefulness, though, rather than outright despair. This is epitomised on ‘Waxahachie’, where Lambert wonders whether, amidst a sea of personal upheaval, she can trust that the Texan town will still reassuringly stand where it always was (“Waxahachie, are you still on 35?/Are you still an all-night drive from Louisiana?”).
‘The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow’ introduces a feeling of acceptance that things never stay the same, with the challenge being to find inner stillness even while the outside world is more turbulent than ever (“Bad times, they all pass/For me and you they don’t/Dust ain’t ever gonna settle/The wind’s just gonna blow”). ‘Ghost’ is similarly moving, but adds a cutting edge and flash of anger (“Go rest in peace with every lie you ever told/‘Cause now you’re just a ghost”).
Despite all the solemnity, we see refreshing injections of humour on the uptempo ‘Homegrown Tomatoes’, where the artists can be heard laughing as Lambert sings the chorus, as well as on their rendition of Lambert’s ‘Tequila Does’, where she receives a ribbing after messing up the lyrics of the hook - the modest hilarity of which is exacerbated by the fact that ‘Tequila Does’ is currently one of the biggest hits on Country radio.
But I feel I should underline that this is not a hugely uplifting album, nor does it contain many themes of mental health. The reason I’ve reviewed it in this issue is because, for me, the key reason music can be so relaxing and therapeutic is the same reason we love books and films - it allows us to get lost in someone else’s story, even if just for a few minutes. This escapism enables us to step back from the clutter of our own thoughts and anxieties, and come back to them with fresh eyes and newfound energy.
I can’t think of another album that is as transportive and immersive as The Marfa Tapes, to the extent that the real star of the show isn’t any one of the three performers - it’s the town itself. Marfa has always had a mythical status, from the mysterious, unexplained ‘Marfa lights’ that emerge along the horizon at night, to the single Prada store that can be found in isolation on the highway amidst acres of desert. It’s been chosen as a retreat for musicians such as Beyonce, as well as being the site of various installations by world-renowned artists. Marfa appears to be situated in a paradoxical liminal space between being on the crest of cultural and artistic progression, whilst also being a sleepy, desert town in Texas that seems to exist outside of the modern world.
Due to the way this project has been recorded, and helped by the songwriting dexterity that pervades it, when you listen, it feels like you’re right there with the trio, sitting under the desert stars, enjoying the flickering glow of a fire while your racing mind slows to the easy rhythm of an acoustic guitar.
On this album, Lambert, Ingram and Randall provide listeners with a Marfa retreat for anyone who isn’t able to visit in person - which, during a pandemic, is pretty much everyone. Pack up your mental baggage and check out of reality for a little while, so you can start your sonic sojourn and recharge through the evocative storytelling and delicate melodies of The Marfa Tapes.
The Marfa Tapes is available to stream on all platforms now!
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