Album Review — Lindsay Ell’s ‘heart theory’

I feel like Lindsay Ell has been the classic example of a major country label having no clue what they have in an artist and therefore completely botching her presentation. More importantly, they have been pushing her in the wrong direction with the music she’s been releasing, specifically her last album The Project felt a bit directionless. With heart theory, it feels like they finally let Ell shine and release the album that feels like her breakout moment. heart theory is an album that finally showcases her at her best.

This is a great pop country album centered around the concept of a breakup and the five stages of grief. I feel like she does really well at nailing the various emotions one goes through in a breakup and her guitar playing is on display throughout, which is important because she’s a damn good guitar player. “Hits me” is an ideal opener, as it’s instantly catchy and carries a surprising amount emotional heft behind it. It reminds me of Lorde’s “Green Light,” in that it’s a song in the “crying in the club” vein. “i don’t lovE you” perfectly captures the unwanted feeling of wanting your ex back, even though you know deep down you don’t love them anymore. The Kane Brown co-write “wAnt me back” is a song I normally wouldn’t enjoy if it was a standalone song, as the arrogance and selfishness of expecting an ex to want you back is annoying. But within a breakup album it fits because this is an emotion that is understandable to feel during a breakup, as it’s a bit of a coping mechanism in the wake of feeling insecure.

“wrong girl” has that unleashed bluesy rock sound that I wish Ell would show off more, as this song just flat out rocks. The frenetic pace of the song is infectious and her label would be wise to make this a single, as I think this sounds like an absolute hit. “body language of a breakup” manages to articulate something that’s only learned after you’ve broken up in a serious relationship and that is the realization that you completely ignore the signs of a breakup before it happens. You get so sucked into the relationship that logic is essentially thrown out the window. And while this may not be the most ear-catching track on the album, it’s accurate psychology greatly aids the overall concept of the album.

The bittersweetness of “good on you” does a great job showing the complicated feelings of watching you ex “win” the breakup and having to accept that while you wish the best for your ex, you wish you didn’t have to see it either. “The oTHEr side” is about coming to the healthy realization that you don’t need an ex to live a happy life and that the relationship doesn’t define who you are. It’s the calming realization that you’re free from emotions that were holding you hostage and being back in control of yourself again. The mellow and smooth sound really aids this emotion and makes for an enjoyable listen too. “gO to” is a solid love song, but it doesn’t feel like it fits the flow of the album and it feels even more out of place when the album’s concluding song feels like it better captures the rediscovery of love.

I can say the same of “make you,” even though it’s an incredibly brave song that the world needs to hear. Written with Brandy Clark, Ell recounts in the song her traumatic experiences of surviving sexual assault and learning how to be a stronger person on the other side of this. It’s such a tragic song that’s unfortunately the reality for so many people and I’m glad that Ell is sharing her story to help other survivors. But I would be lying if I said this just doesn’t fit the rest of the album, just like I said of Dua Lipa’s “Boys Will Be Boys” on Future Nostalgia.

“ReadY to love” is a great conclusion to the album, as Ell has fully moved on from her breakup and is ready to love somebody again. After so much heartbreak throughout the album, it’s good to end the album on an uplifting note and moving forward with a positive attitude, much like one is encouraged do in their own breakup and officially completing the fives stages.

Overall I think Ell mostly nails the concept she’s going for with heart theory, with my biggest complaint of this album being just a bit too long. At the very least I would have trimmed this down to ten songs, possibly even eight (“how good” and “get oveR you” are not bad songs, but feel a bit redundant when there are other songs that cover the same themes better). I’m also not a fan of the all lowercase titles with random capital letters to spell out the album title, as it’s tacky and uncreative. It’s better to let the songs themselves spell out the concept of the album than literally spelling it out in the song titles.

Despite my criticisms though, Lindsay Ell gets a lot right on heart theory and it’s a big step in the right direction for her sound and style. Her guitar playing is great as always and producer Dann Huff, who’s production I haven’t always been a fan of, is actually quite complementary of her strengths and brings a compelling sound that grips me throughout. This album is a great achievement for Ell, as she manages to craft both a fun, yet thought-provoking pop country album in heart theory.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Midland’s ‘Let It Roll’

Midland delivered a great debut album with On The Rocks and for their sophomore release Let It Roll, they improve in almost all aspects. Yet somehow, it’s a slight step down in album quality, which I attribute to the great strength of their debut album and putting just a few too many tracks on Let It Roll. Case in point is the opening song and title track, which is just a bad choice to open the album. It’s decidedly one of the weakest tracks on the album, lacking in both the vibrancy and lyrical catchiness in comparison to most of the other songs on the album. I usually skip this track when listening to the album and jump right into “Fourteen Gears,” which is a great track. It’s the ideal driving song, with both it’s lyrical theme of driving a long way to see your baby and it’s bouncy, 80s flavored melody.

The album’s lead single “Mr. Lonely” would have also been my choice for the leading track of this album. It’s just a flat out fun and catchy song about the lonely fool at the bar always there to be the rebound guy for lonely women. I love the music video with Dennis Quaid too. “Cheatin’ Songs” immediately hooks me with its smooth melody and has that same easiness about it in its lyrical approach like previous Midland singles “Burn Out” and “Drinkin’ Problem.” The same can be said about “Put the Hurt on Me.” Its your classic heartbreak country ballad that country fans can take to like a duck takes to water. I really enjoy the intertwining of the pedal steel guitar and Telecaster on “I Love You, Goodbye.” It’s what country rock is supposed to sound like.

“Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song” is a fun singalong, but it can get a bit old after extended listens due to it’s predictable approach and a couple of forced wordplays. “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band” is a mouthful of a song title, but it showcases what this band is best at and that’s taking simple themes and making them feel fresh to the listener. The sights and sounds of a band always on the road is a common theme, but the lyrics and melody of this song make it engaging and interesting by not dwelling on a moment too long and keeping the energy moving. I also enjoy the switch in melody at the end, as it’s a different wrinkle within the album.

“Fast Hearts and Slow Towns” feels like something the Eagles would have cut and this is a great thing because that’s Midland’s lane. It’s a simple, reflective song on a lost small town love and once again this is such a common theme in country music, but I’m not screaming cliché because of Midland’s approach and the wise choices by producers Shane McAnally, Dann Huff and Josh Osborne. The trio clearly know how to position this band to sound their best. “Cheatin’ by the Rules” is fine, as it does nothing especially right nor wrong. So, it would have been fine being left on the cutting room floor too.

Midland’s tendency to inject catchy wordplay can do them in at times, but when they get it right, they can hit grand slams and “Playboys” is a perfect example. It’s all centered around the chorus and the words play and boys, which on paper sounds like a mess. Yet you listen to it and it just works. The best I can explain of why I like this song is that’s it’s playful, fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is the appeal of Midland in a nutshell. “Lost in the Night” sounds like it’s straight out of early 80s country with it’s sultry, R&B influenced sound. The cherry on top is the smooth sounds of saxophones that play the song out. You’ll either love or hate this track. Put me firmly on the love side, as this is a side of country music that needs to be shown more.

“Gettin’ the Feel” is another solid heartbreak song from the group, but it feels out of place on the track list. To me it just feels like it’s in weird spot on the album, especially since the album closes as weakly as it started with “Roll Away.” I understand how the band wanted to open and close with tracks with roll in the title. But it fails to have an impact when both songs are head and shoulders the weakest on the album, as both suffer from the same issues of just not measuring up in terms of lyrical and melody quality with the rest of the songs. You can’t put such weak tracks next to strong tracks because they stick out like sore thumbs. “Lost in the Night” would have been the perfect closer.

Despite my criticisms, Let It Roll shows this is a band that can pull off various sounds quite well and are far from the one-trick pony session players that some tried to paint them as when they arrived on the scene (they even contribute to all the writing on the album). Midland avoids the sophomore slump and delivers one of the better country albums you’ll hear this year.

Grade: 8/10