Literally injecting new sounds into a familiar formula
It’s easy to be cynical and wary about the deluge of acoustic records, either re-recording their own material or doing covers that the Pandemic has inflicted upon us. Artists have to make money with their tour revenue drying up, of course, but that doesn’t make the bedroom recording quality and poorly thought-out choice of songs any more enjoyable. However, even the most skeptical listeners will find something intriguing in The Marfa Tapes.
Country superstar Miranda Lambert teams up with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall; the former is a second-tier lifer who somehow turned Hinder’s wretched “Lips of an Angel” into a decent song, and the latter is a significant writer and producer responsible for Dierks Bentley’s transition to quality as well as the fantastic “Whiskey Lullaby” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss. Their previous collaboration between these three yielded the iconic “Tin Man,” which is one of two previously released tracks that they recorded on a Texas ranch on this rough yet playful and intimate set of tapes.
It makes sense that Lambert would want to pivot to something more lo-fi after ditching her long-time producer Frank Lidell on Wildcard for Jay Joyce, a polarizing figure who dragged the record down with his infamous overcompression. These songs, on the other hand, only feature one or two acoustic guitars, letting these three performers flex their vocal and writing chops. The melodies are simple yet alluring and well-constructed, especially the hooks of “Waxahachie” and “Geraldene,” and there’s a good mix of more upbeat singalongs like “Homegrown Tomatoes” and slower tunes like “We’ll Always Have the Blues.”
Though Lambert has the most presence, she doesn’t dominate the project as Randall and Ingram have plenty of time in the spotlight, in addition to contributing gorgeous harmonies on “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow” and “Ghost.” For such simple songs, the album is a shade too long (15 songs and 47 minutes), yet there’s little to complain about when it comes to the individual compositions.
The true charm of The Marfa Tapes doesn’t come from the instrumentation but from the recording quality. Sounding more like a concert performance than a studio recording, the audio is full of intrusions and ambient noise from the environment and performers. It becomes something of a game to guess what is going on around them. The desert wind rages in the background of nearly every song, but there’s also the crunch of rock under tires, a creaking chair or porch steps and the crinkling of a water bottle. The three stars congratulate and banter with each other at the end of a take, they laugh and cheer in the middle, and Miranda even flubs a take on “Tequila Does,” and they just giggle through it. While some might find these interjections annoying, they cement the impression of long-time partners having a good time doing what they love. It’s these immersive sound effects, chatter and laughter that make The Marfa Tapes something special, a window into the raw creativity, love of music and kinship of this country trinity that should put a smile on even the most jaded skeptics of acoustic records.