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Released early last year, The Sonic Ranch acts as the soundtrack to the accompanying CMT documentary that explores Midland’s very first studio sessions as a band. Formed off the back of a chance meeting at a wedding, Jess Carson sent a few songs to Mark Wystrach, and they decided to head to Texas’ famous ‘Sonic Ranch’ studios to record them. Cameron Duddy went with them primarily as a videographer, but soon found himself playing bass on the tracks - and the rest, as they say, is history.
Midland are now a household name in Country music on both sides of the Atlantic, having performed fairly regularly in the UK as well as in the States, so watching their genesis unfurl before your very eyes in the Sonic Ranch documentary makes for fascinating viewing. So often, we only see the finished product - even when we’re presented with a ‘new’ artist with their first radio single, this is very rarely their actual first single. By this point, they’ll have already spent years honing their sound and ironing out any creases through local gigging and trial-run releases (hey, that rhymes…).
In the Midland documentary, it’s surprising hearing a pre-moustachioed Mark Wystrach - the band’s lead vocalist and resident heartthrob - talking about how he’d given up on music in order to pursue a more ‘realistic’ career path. Or catching a glimpse of Cameron Duddy fishing in some dusty overalls, as he shrugs and talks about how the trio don’t really know where this new venture is heading and whether it’ll work out.
As ridiculous as it sounds, I often find myself falling into the trap of thinking stars have always been stars. But this documentary does a great job of highlighting both the buzz and anxiety of uncertainty, and it’s actually quite inspiring to watch, because you can’t help but watch these regular guys kick ideas around, and think that whatever dream it is that you’re striving for in life, it’s achievable. The divide between the successful and the less successful isn’t as wide as it sometimes appears.
Aside from offering this refreshing insight into the early formations of the band, it showcases a new side to their music. Prior to The Sonic Ranch, Midland’s albums have been heavily polished, full of swagger and inevitably guided by the demands of mainstream Country radio. And don’t get me wrong, they’re great projects - but on The Sonic Ranch, there’s a stripped-back tenderness and rugged authenticity that we haven’t seen before.
For most of the twelve tracks, there’s a continuous, almost hypnotic, backing track that meanders along steadily like a Texas highway, with Wystrach’s languid drawl drifting in and out like landmarks passing by the window. This is particularly true of the opening two tracks, beginning with the truckers’ anthem, 'Fourteen Gears', followed by the rodeo ballad, 'Cowgirl Blues’, and on both of these the distinctive beats meld perfectly with the lead vocals. We also get a version of ‘Cowgirl Blues’ sung by Jess Carson rather than Wystrach - while Wystrach’s vocals are inevitably stronger, this nonetheless makes for an interesting addition, and contributes to the overall ‘demo-esque’ feel of the project.
We see Folk and Bluegrass influences introduced on the catchy euphoria of ‘Worn Out Boots’ and the energetic levity of ‘Texas Is The Last Stop’. These juxtapose the warm melancholy of songs like ‘Fool’s Luck’, a quietly hopeful track that again cruises peacefully along over an uninterrupted guitar loop. ‘Whiskey’ follows in the same vein, featuring an understated but irresistible hook, and a lighter feel than ‘Fool’s Luck’, despite the comparative heaviness of the forlorn lyrics. The album closer, ‘This Town’, is another downtempo jewel, and acts as a despairing rebuke of the classic Country line (“There ain’t nothin’ in this place, worth pullin’ off the highway to see”). I’d love to see the band giving more album-time to slower tracks like these in future, which benefit from there being no overseeing producer trying to artificially jazz them up.
I generally subscribe to the view that if it’s a struggle to think of my favourite song from a particular album, then it either means the album is quite terrible, or it means it’s quite brilliant - The Sonic Ranch is certainly the latter, in my book. ‘Will This Life Be As Grand’, which again finds Carson taking on the lead vocals, began as a song that I’d skip past, but over time has blossomed into one of my favourites. It’s an easy, kind-hearted song that could happily sneak onto a 70’s playlist and no-one would bat an eyelid.
The Sonic Ranch is an album to lose yourself in, with each track staying true to the endearingly untreated feel of the project. Aside from being an escapist dream, when coupled with the documentary of Midland’s humble beginnings, it acts as a gentle but effective nudge of motivation to mentally check into your own ‘Sonic Ranch’, and chase whatever hopes and aspirations you might be harbouring. As far as Midland’s own journey is concerned, with The Sonic Ranch and the smooth brilliance of their more recent The Last Resort EP, they seem to be getting better and better with time. Watch this space.
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