Monday, May 17, 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall - The Marfa Tapes

This is an album that's had my interest piqued for a minute now, ever since it was being teased. There are a few reasons for that, the first being the all-star lineup performing on this album. First is Jon Randall, a man who's been writing and producing for numerous artists all throughout Nashville, from legends like Dwight Yoakum and Reba McEntire, Texas stars like Pat Green and Parker McCollum, and today's superstars like Dierks Bentley, Maren Morris, and Miranda Lambert. Then there's Jack Ingram who is a legend in the Texas Country circuit. He's been writing and recording music for almost 25 years now and, at one point, was probably gonna be country's next huge star after signing to Big Machine Records and dropping some great singles. Most notably the songs Wherever You Are and Barefoot and Crazy, both of which were huge hits on Country Radio in the mid to late 2000s but even before that, he had been killing it in the Texas circuit for years and I still believe that Hey You is one of the best Texas Country albums ever released. After he and Big Machine parted ways, he went 6 years without new music which eventually led to Midnight Motel which might be his best songwriting probably ever. His lyrics and storytelling all over the album are insanely solid. Whether it's the catchy and hell-raising I'm Drinking Through It or the hilarious Blaine's Ferris Wheel, this album was a solid return to form for Ingram. 

And then there's Miranda Lambert who I'm pretty sure is the reason everyone is going to listen to this album. I know some people reading this might not completely know Miranda but I want to be the first to tell you, she's way more than just the girl who used to be married to Blake Shelton. After bursting onto the scene in 2005, she's gone on to pen some of the genre's defining breakup and revenge songs with Gunpowder & Lead, White Liar, and of course, Mama's Broken Heart. After splitting up with Shelton in 2015, she dropped the double album The Weight of These Wings a year after which was easily her most personal and stripped-back album to date and it also brought Ingram and Randall into the fold for writing. And that double album is partly the reason we have this album here with us. In 2015, the three of them spent a weekend in Marfa, Texas and were just blown away by its beauty and how inspired it made them so they kept returning and kept writing songs. 

(From L to R): Jon Randall, Jack Ingram, and Miranda Lambert photographed in Marfa, Tx during the recording of the album.

The other reason I was excited for this album was because of the concept behind it. When this album was announced, the trio made it clear that this album was meant to sound like you were at a campfire and one of your buddies brought a guitar. The only recording gear for this album was two guitars, two microphones, and three bodies and all of the little imperfections really add to this album's character. Whether it's wind blowing, a fire crackling, or the sound of Ingram hitting his guitar and laughing at a few lines in the song Homegrown Tomatoes, the idea they had for this album was executed perfectly. I will mention two tracks on this album before this review starts, those being Tin Man and Tequila Does only because these songs have both already made their way onto different Miranda albums but I will say, the version of Tin Man on here is definitely better than the studio version. Miranda's voice shines a lot more and this one just feels a lot more emotional in my opinion. 

The album opens with In His Arms which is the perfect way to kick this album off. If it was given the right polishes and treatment, Miranda could probably rule the radio, but in this state, it's a beautiful, shimmering tune about a cowboy who got away. Miranda wonders on the song where he's at, asking if he's "breaking horses in San Antone" or "praying for rain out in West Texas." I also love Randall and Ingram's little vocal additions to the song that provide some great harmonies. I Don't Like It is a duet between Ingram and Lambert and lyrically, this song is really sweet. Ingram sings in the verses about how he loves it when he and his lover make plans about how they're gonna grow old together and loves when she says his name and sings him songs that he'll sing all the wrong words too. Then in the chorus, he and Lambert sing:

But I don't like it when you walk away
I don't like it when you disappear
I don't like being away from you
I don't like it when you're not here

And if you need a reminder of the recording situation for this album, listen close at the end of the song and you'll be able to hear cows mooing. The Wind's Just Gonna Blow has some more beautiful harmonies in the chorus and I really love the writing on here again with Lambert and Ingram singing about a person whose life is falling apart all around them and no matter what they do, they can't change the outcomes because the "dust ain't ever gonna settle / and the winds just gonna blow." 

Am I Right or Amarillo I think is a weak moment lyrically but it's still a fun song and Randall's singing on the song is actually pretty solid. I also love Jack at the end telling him, "That's country!" Waxahachie picks up the slack lyrically with a solid verse right in the middle of the song. Lambert sings about leaving New Orleans pissed off and needing help asking if this person who lives in Waxahachie can be there for them. And like I said, there's a beautifully written second verse here where Miranda sings:

I can run from the demons like the devil in a speedin' car
I've got enough gasoline, memories and nicotine
Freedom's ovŠµrrated, guess I underŠµstimated the truth
And you

Homegrown Tomatoes is a super fun song that could be a solid party song if given the proper studio treatment. Especially the chorus with Randall and Lambert telling a buddy to come and sing them a country song since they're "all f*cked up, falling in love" and everyone will sing along. I also have to say that the "doot doot doo's" throughout the song makes it even more fun as if Ingram's loud WHATs and general enthusiasm for the song doesn't make it fun enough already. I also love Ingram's ramble at the end of the song where he says in a mocking tone, "WhAt'S tHaT sOnG aBoUt?" then answering himself saying, "I don't know, just hand me a beer!" And of course, right after this super fun song comes Breaking a Heart which brings you back down the ground pretty quickly with Randall singing a tear-jerker wondering which part of a breakup is worse, being heartbroken? or breaking someone's heart? While the person Randall is singing about is obviously about to break up with their significant other, it's tearing them apart inside with Randall singing "What if I regret givin' up the fight?" and singing in the second verse, "I really do wish you were the one letting go." This decision to end this relationship is extremely tough for this person and the emotional toll of having to break up with their significant other is really affecting their decision to do so, they even ask themselves, "How am I getting through this?" Ghost is another breakup song but it has a lot more humor in it with Lambert singing about how she burned all of this guy's jeans and "pearl snap shirts." There's also a hilarious line in the second verse where she says, "If you're such a poet, write an epitaph" and another one in the third verse where she sings, "I replaced the headboard with a chiseled stone / Here lies the meanest man I've ever known." The general sentiment of the song is that Miranda has moved so far past this ex that's he's pretty much a ghost to her "and I ain't afraid of ghosts."

Geraldene is another funny song with Lambert singing about a girl who Miranda has said is either the cousin or sister of Jolene from the legendary Dolly Parton song. Pretty much, Geraldene is trying to live just like Jolene but Miranda is telling her she'll never be as cool as Jolene so quit trying. She even tells Geraldene in the chorus, "Why you gotta make me mean / Don't make me cause a scene now Geraldene." Miranda's singing on this song is sassy and in the chorus, there's a certain grit to it that makes it even better. There's also an awesome moment near the end of the song where Miranda stutters through saying Geraldene's name which makes them all sort of giggle but I guess Miranda liked how it sounded because she keeps doing it throughout the outro. They also all start cracking jokes about it too which is another one of those moments where you can see just how much these three enjoy being together writing these songs. We'll Always Have The Blues is another small weak point lyrically but I still really like this song especially the recurring line throughout the song about how Ingram can't have this girl he wants but they'll "always have the blues." I know I already touched on this album's version of Tin Man but I still think this song deserves more recognition than what I said at the beginning, this version is beautiful and I still think it's one of the best songs Miranda has ever recorded. I also love the banter at the end where Jack jokingly says, "Hey how 'bout another try? I'm not sure about that one." Miranda agrees and says, "My string was buzzin', my capo was crooked," to which Jack replies, "Shut up! That was your brain buzzin', that's great!" Two-Step Down in Texas is definitely gonna be a fun song to hit the dancefloor too, it 100% has that two-step rhythm, though lyrically, it just seems like Lambert and Randall made a list of everything Texan they could think of and were just checking off to see how many they could fit in this song. I won't complain too much though because I hope the next time I hear this, I'm in the middle of a honky-tonk spinning some cowgirl around on the dancefloor (even though I probably couldn't dance to a song like this to save my life.)

The album ends just as strong as it started with an awesome final stretch. Anchor is a song that Ingram sings and...I can't believe that he's been sitting on this for a minute, this song is fantastic. The lyrics show Jack likening this lover to an anchor telling her to pull him under into all of her love and affection and telling her when he's with her, he can fly. His voice on the song too seems almost pained but it fits perfectly here on this song. Tequila Does is another song that Miranda has already recorded but it's fun to hear super stripped back like this. Then the album closes with Amazing Grace (West Texas) which almost seems like a credits roll type moment with Randall just celebrating Marfa for being such a great background for this project. Randall sings on the song about how it's amazing grace for it to rain in West Texas or to see the sunset. I also find it hilarious that Randall sings about how "you can hear cattle from a million miles away" while cows can be heard mooing out in the distance. The album ends with Lambert and Ingram telling Randall the song is beautiful, saying cheers, sharing a laugh, then walking away. 

You know what, I won't sugarcoat this at all, this is an amazing album. This album was a big risk and a very bold move for a country singer with the popularity Lambert has but I honestly think she's at a point in her career where she just doesn't care. She's gonna make what she wants to make and fans can either buy it or not. I think that this was a risk that really paid off. While I do have a gripe or two about lyrics every now and then, none of them are so glaring that I have to point it out. At its weakest moments, this album is still very enjoyable and shows all of these artists in their most raw state possible. This album strips country down to its bare essentials and in my opinion, that's all it needs. Just an acoustic guitar and great songwriting. I know I mentioned this at the beginning of this review but this album honestly does sound like sitting around a campfire with a bunch of buddies and someone breaks out a guitar. Just to drive it home one more time, I love this album. Love, love, love this album. And I don't care if you like country music or not, everyone should be able to appreciate good songwriting so give this a shot if you find the time.

I would rate
The Marfa Tapes
By Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall


The Marfa Tapes is available to stream wherever you get your music from. Links for Apple Music and Spotify are below. Vinyl copies of the album are available both online and at your local music store!

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