Fans and critics alike have recognized 2018 as being a huge year for singer/songwriters, left-field folkies and cowboy crooners of a new variety, but Pale Mara’s brand new self-titled album stands alone as perhaps the ultimate amalgamation of surrealist indie rock and country music swing. We start off with the sublime plodding of “Not Like I Used To” and work our way through moments of pensive optimism (“Bird”) sharp lyrical admissions (“I Think I Am a Phoenix” and “Only Say It If You Mean It”) and internal dialogues translated into sumptuous bursts of melodic catharsis (“Only Image,” “More Than This Person”). Along the way Pale Mara keep things interesting with solid rhythms that flow between the tracks and bind everything together quite conceptually, and while the first half of the album is much more playful than the cinematic second act, this record is so captivating that it’s easy to play it from beginning to end without tiring of its countless facets of warm authenticity.
Tracks like “My Curse With the Canvas” and “Only Image” might not have been composed with the same narrative as some of country’s most time-honored classics, but within their framework they continue a tradition of organic melodies distributed through less-than technologically superior means excellently. Production-wise Pale Mara is an immaculately constructed piece of music, but it’s in songs like these two that we see how nondependent on big budget studio schemes the band really is. “Only Image” would sound even more endearing live, though I don’t think it would be primed with a different texture than what we find here. Pale Mara are really good at conveying the raw sound of their music without making their tracks sound like basement recordings or amateurish attempts at that much-sought after vinyl tonality. This record is as attractive to hipster folk fans as it is millennial country enthusiasts who have been vocally expressing a desire to hear more country artists who aren’t tied down to the limiting standards of the past. “Blue Dream” isn’t the sort of song that Nashville would usually approve of because of its weighty black and white rigidity, but this duo have already shown us before that if there’s one thing they don’t do well it’s play by someone else’s rules.
Pale Mara have crossed a major aesthetical bridge with their self-titled album that they were bound to face at some point in their career but unlike most of their peers have reached much sooner than anyone could have expected. This record is born out of the alternative revolution that is overtaking acoustic-oriented music but can’t be dismissed as just another release in a collection of really impactful alternative folk and leftist country albums we’ve seen in the last two or three years. They’ve come up with an intrepid mixture of Americana’s most unpretentious and lavish components without having to draw from their forerunners excessively. Out of all the new full-length LPs debuting this month this is the one I’ve anticipated the most, and though they don’t reinvent the wheel in these ten stylish tracks Pale Mara definitively solidify their place within the hierarchy of alternative music as the year comes to a close.