Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey Musgraves - Massachusetts, Lori McKenna - American Kid, Patty Griffin

   These three records are ones I’ve been feverishly anticipating ever since their release dates were announced. I’ve long been a fan of Patty Griffin, and though I found much to enjoy about her previous record—Downtown Church, a strong departure that explored gospel roots—I was ready for the return of the Patty Griffin that made Living With Ghosts, one of my favorite records ever made, period. I was fortunate enough to catch a very intimate performance that Patty put on in Cambridge this past fall, at the tiny, famed Club Passim. There were perhaps a hundred of us in attendance. Why didn’t I review it for The Buzz About? Because I couldn’t find the words. It was magical beyond the capabilities of language and vocabulary and adjectives. She teased a few songs from American Kid, and I’ve been waiting for it (not so) patiently since that night.

    I feel a similar reverence when it comes to Lori McKenna, whom I believe to be one of the best songwriters alive today; her keen ability to capture the human condition, to chronicle so effortlessly the middle-class narrative, is unparalleled. I reviewed her last record, Lorraine, for The Buzz About, and still sing its praises two years later. It is compiled of gem after gem, a patchwork of songs that never lose their shine, no matter how many listens. I had no doubts that she’d outdo herself with Massachusetts, which made the wait nothing short of torturous.

    And then there’s Kacey Musgraves. Same Trailer Different Park is her debut, but I’d become familiar with her, as many have, by way of others performing her songs. She sold “Mama’s Broken Heart” to Miranda Lambert; “Undermine” to ABC’s Nashville. They were catchy songs, but more than that, I was intrigued by her lyrics. Lacking a better phrasing, they sounded so much smarter than anything I’d heard coming out of the contemporary country market. They had grit, attitude, perspective—all without ever feeling heavy-handed or overwrought. I knew that we’d be in for something special when the time came for Kacey to put out a CD of her own.

    So now you’re thinking: were they worth the wait? The answer is an across-the-board, unequivocal, vehement, enthusiastic, perfervid YES. These records exist in a wonderful niche being carved out amongst singer-songwriters—an arbitrary distinction come to think of it, as they are so wonderful so as to be universally enjoyed regardless of label—and if this is the direction we’re heading in, I couldn’t be more pleased.

    Same Trailer Different Park is the strongest debut to come out of contemporary country. The tendency here is to qualify this proclamation with a “since,” and I thought to do so, but I really can’t think of one better. There’s something for everybody here—fun songs, tongue-in-cheek songs, sad songs, love songs, home songs, road songs—but the throughline from the first to last track is a cohesive sense of purpose. These songs have something to say beyond their catchy choruses. Take “Merry Go Round,” wisely released as the record’s single, which paints a picture of the stagnancy and quiet desperation of small town life. When she sings, “We’re so bored until we’re buried/and just like dust we settle in this town,” you can almost hear her nipping at Lori McKenna’s heels. Other favorites of mine include “Blowin’ Smoke,” a playful song about mealy-mouthed promises to quit, “Step Off,” a delightful middle finger to those who burden us with negativity, and “It Is What It Is,” the softest, sweetest, saddest song on the record, which finds Kacey pining, singing “I ain’t go no one sleepin’ with me/and you ain’t got nowhere you need to be.”

    If Same Trailer Different Park is any indication, Massachusetts is the record Kacey Musgraves might make in a decade or two, with the perspective only years of pain and pleasure can afford a songwriter. Lori’s latest is an achievement beyond what I could have hoped for. Some of these songs have been in her live repertoire for a while—songs like “Make Every Word Hurt” and “How Romantic Is That”—but to have them all compiled on one disc is truly a treat. Because Lori has never written a bad song, not one in her life I tell you, it’s worth talking about the production going on here. Massachusetts comes on the heels of the very spare, stripped-down Lorraine, with the highly-produced (and, with some songs, perhaps too much so) Unglamorous before that. I think fans will be happy to hear what has been made of the songs here; the production gets your head moving and your toes tapping, but it never once overpowers the lyrics, which has and always will be where Lori shines. There’s a range of emotions that she’s covering throughout the record, but she never falters in proving, yet again, that there’s immense power in simplicity, in less is more, if you choose the right words. And nobody chooses the right words quite like Lori McKenna.

    And so we come to American Kid, Patty Griffin’s best record in fifteen years, and her first on the New West label. At her Passim show, Patty talked a lot about her father who had recently passed, and he’s all over this record. He’s in the gorgeous sendoff “Go Wherever You Wanna Go.” He’s the titular “Irish Boy,” returning from war. He’s the pleading voice in the tender and tough “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida.” And he’s the youthful lad in “Get Ready Marie,” a song that captures the long marriage of her parents with grace and humor. “Not A Bad Man” is another standout, and does what Amanda Palmer wishes her “Poem for Dzhoar” could. It’s a compassionate, humane look at what it is to be a soldier on either side, for wars that have long lost sight of their purpose, if they ever had a purpose at the start. And then there’s “That Kind of Lonely,” which easily could’ve fit on Living With Ghosts, and finds Patty in her finest form—just her and her guitar, that gigantic voice that could fill a canyon, and lyrics like wallops to the gut.
    Treat yourself to this wonderful trifecta. These are sure to be three of the best records of the year. For those with ears and hearts.

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