My Very Tame and Reasonable West
“My Wild West Overture,” the prelude of Illinoisian songbird Lissie’s latest record, My Wild West, has an impeccable poker face. Power ballad guitar leads over full bodied acoustic chords (think Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”) with an out-and-proud chorus pedal are paired with production that refuses to give up the slightest hint of what genre we’re supposed to be gearing up for.
Luckily, “Hollywood” is more than willing to fill in the gaps with the kind of full-bodied, augmented piano chords that signal that you’re in for a ride; you’re officially at the mercy of a visionary, for better or worse, for the next thirty-eight to forty-five minutes. Things get even more confusing when the title tracks rolls in on a futurist amalgamation of shimmery synths and crystalline keyboard sounds, rather than the expected tumbleweed of guitars and banjos.
Fans, critics and press releases dub Lissie Maurus everything from indie to alternative, and (one of the more common qualifiers) “folk rock.” This is peculiar, considering that the music of Lissie is not really any of those things. My Wild West is neither folk nor rock, despite what the occasional banjo and string quartet would have us believe, and it’s definitely not any combination of the two.
As harsh as it may seem, My Wild West is a straight-up pop album with some artistic restraint when it comes to over the top arrangements. You know, by pop album standards – which might mean one less synth string arrangement layer than you’d hear in your average top 40 track. Any of these tracks could easily be redressed as a Katy Perry song or even (in the case of the title track) presented as is.
There are some hints of organic material in the pristine machine, but every enjoyable aspect comes with a sizable asterisk. The drums add a lot of texture, but they tend to dissolve into the mix and reemerge as echoing computerized claps with the arrival of each chorus. Even though “Stay” sounds inexcusably like Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page,” it’s a highlight in that it’s bare bones-y and folky. It even throws listeners some banjo and cello, polite reminders that My Wild West is supposed to be operating under some antiquarian pretext.
“Sun Keeps Risin’ ” is a mournful but still amiable country ballad that jangles on by without ever gaining traction. “Hero” even possesses a small bit of Patty Smith’s defiant spirit in the vocal delivery, but it’s clearest on this track that Lissie’s vision of the Wild West doesn’t exactly take place in a dusty, outlaw-filled saloon, rather somewhere much cleaner and safer and probably right outside San Francisco. All the grit is obscured by the echo and the chorus pedals and vocal reverb and layers of pretty keyboard tones.
But over all these dull observations looms the title’s caveat. It’s not called The Wild West, it’s called My Wild West. It hints to the audience that, within this record, we can expect to find something a little different than the patchwork of Johnny Cash, Ennio Morricone and whizzing gunfire sound effects that represents the “sound” of the pre-Civil War western United States in the minds of so many people. In the title track Lissie declares “I’m going rogue in the wild west,” so it shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise that every single track isn’t all rustic and rough around the edges.
But even if when you’re trying to give Lissie the benefit of that specific doubt, My Wild West is depressingly fraught with music clichés rather than evidence that Lissie has been rethinking any sort of formula. “Don’t You Give Up On Me” suffers from Mumford and Son’s syndrome – the insistent quarter note bass drum that plagues so much folk-influenced indie and pop music. The biggest headscratcher is “Daughters,” an anthem of women empowerment that employs oscillating synth bass straight out of a Tears For Fears song. With the hamfisted lyrics and accompanying guitar, Lissie pilots the ship a little too close to Indigo Girls territory while also inadvertently channeling the King of Pop in some weird, 1980s preternaturalism.
In short, Lissie’s indie pop purports more heft than it’s actually got, like if Imogen Heap were less imaginative and eccentric. Even when judged by the very forgiving standards of a pop record, there’s not much to look at or reason to revisit.