A promising, mellow start in need of restraint
In preparation for this review of a debut album, the only other material to consult from this Chicago-based trio was a series of live performances on their Youtube channel. Watching them only made Watch Me Learn even more exasperating, as it removed a lot of the record’s sonic cruff for the better. It tries to walk the line between mellow, intimate acoustic session and dense, layered jam band without really committing to either, and the Youtube performances vindicate the latter. That’s not to say the album is a failure, as the lyrical atmosphere is well-realized and the individual performances are strong, but someone needed to trim the fat and remove a portion of the presented ideas for this to rise from decent to great.
Guitarist Owen Burton, fiddliest Libby Weitnauer and bassist Eli Broxham met at DePaul University, went their separate ways, and met back up in Nashville to form Dallas Ugly. While there’s some underweight millennial angst, namely “Money” and its bargain-barrel wordplay, the album on the whole does a great job at setting the mood for reflecting on past experiences and categorizing memories. “Part of a Time” finds the protagonist realizing they cared about a former partner more than they ever realized, that there’s no way to make it work now and their only option is to happily dream about what could have been. “Ought To Miss You Now” reflects on a time when they “didn’t know what they didn’t know” and their perceived maturity and experience did not reflect reality. The title track finds a couple falling in and out of a relationship and the protagonist finally realizing they need to learn how to stay friends, which was made more difficult by how caring their partner was. There’s a sense of lived reality that comes through the writing, with a little help from the vocals and music.
Owen and Libby are, sadly, not that different vocally. Both deliver mellow, impassioned, thoughtful vocals with enough twang to stand out from the crowd. More moments like Owen going for higher notes on the end of “Fool’s Life” would have been nice, but the low-key melodies are quite ear-wormy and there are some nice harmonies used to smart effect. The music cutting out behind the opening of “Anyone New” was genius, as is the more ethereal treatment of Libby on “Liberated No Ones.”
As previously discussed with the Youtube performances, Dallas Ugly work best with electric guitar, bass, fiddle, pedal steel and drums. The overall mood is fairly mellow, but at least these five elements sound well-positioned and hypnotizing as they intertwine with one another. The pedal steel plinks against the curdled bluesy riffage of “Anyone New,” the fiddle synchronizing with the pedal steel on the post-chorus “Saint-Louis,” and especially the fiddle, drums and vocals rising in intensity before shrinking back to a tense guitar line on “Liberated No Ones” show how well they can play off themselves. If they had stuck to these elements, it would’ve been for the better.
Unfortunately, Dallas Ugly chose to stuff themselves without adding the energy needed to make a jam-band level density. This issue rears its ugly head from the opening moments with the clearly synthetic burbling of “Remember When You’re Leaving” that shows up again on “Part of a Time.” The opening analog flute samples, watery backing vocals and cacophonic strings of “Gold” create the worst song on the album. The band’s press release provides the biggest clue to their vision, claiming they “evoke an old-school country version of lofi hip hop radio,” completely ignoring how that genre works with consistent fidelity. The mix of synthetic and organic works by making one sound like the other; the soft-focus flutes and organ of “Money” sound nice enough, but they don’t gel with the acoustic finger-picking that lacks any reverb or other effects. Having enough energy to celebrate the pure chaos can also help, and only “Liberated No Ones” and maybe “Fool’s Life” have enough oomph to make that happen.
It’s possible for Dallas Ugly to make more music resembling their live performances, and it’s possible they choose to keep their bells and whistles. Either way, there’s plenty of potential on Watch Me Learn, though it will be disappointing if, contrary to their own album title, they make the same mistakes again.