Margo Price: Strays [Album Review]

Margo Price
Loma Vista Recordings [2023]

When Nashville singer-songwriter Margo Price made her debut in 2016 with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, on Jack White’s Third Man label, the album went to No. 1 on the UK Country Album Chart, and she earned a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. Here on her fourth studio album, Price, her co-writer and husband Jeremy Ivey, and producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Dawes) take her sound in more of a rock direction, tapping the talents of Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell, Sharon Van Etten, and the Lucius vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig for guest spots.

According to interviews about the album, Price has reported that she and Ivey went off with their guitars and mushrooms to begin the writing process, although the end result doesn’t sound like psilocybin-enhanced Grateful Dead ramblings you might expect. The album opens with a haunting march dominated by a dense organ sound, “Been to the Mountain,” which sounds a bit like an early Tina Turner spitting out a Bob Dylan lyric. “Used to be a lover, queen, and a drifter/A cowboy devil, a bride in a box and/A pilgrim and a thief, but it was me underneath.” It’s a treatise on self-definition by refusing to be put in any one box.

The acoustic “Light Me Up” follows, starting easy and gentle like a folk song, that builds like a Zeppelin rocker, primed and oiled by Campbell’s blazing solo before things come back down. At the song’s peak, Price sings “Light me up, burn me up/Boil from the inside/Deeper than the ocean/Get me higher than the tide,” only to “take it slow/take it slow” when things come back down to the acoustic guitar and a reprise. Taking it in an altogether different direction, Price writes and sings with Van Etten over drum machine loops, another declaration is independence and ignore the haters: “People try to push me around/Run my name straight in the ground/I can’t hear them, I tuned them out… The only thing I have on is the radio.”

While the album’s experimental spirit shows up in the musical diversity from track to track, Price and Company find the melodic core of each song, and her voice cuts through as if to assure the listener that she’s holding everything together. “Change of Heart” hangs its melody on a traditional guitar rock riff, but it’s a catchy folk/rock song at heart, allowing her band the Pricetags to stretch out a little.

The old Cash family saying went something like, “you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” Well, on the character study of a small-town girl in “County Road,” which Price wrote for the band’s late drummer Ben Eyestone, the piano and pedal steel guitar take her back to the country music side of the tracks. She sounds especially prescient when she sings, “Remember when we got drunk/That time in Ontario/Listening to Warren Zevon/On the stereo… And even though you’re no longer here/You’ll never be that far.”

“Time Machine” is another pop/rock and R&B with an oldies vibe. Meanwhile “Hell in the Heartland” takes a darker turn, dissecting the inner workings of an dysfunctional relationship: “You’re everything I want/In someone I don’t want anymore.” Another take on the R&B throw-back is “Anytime You Call,” with Price’s lead vocal resting on the lush female harmonies of the Lucius singers.

But the heavy heart of side two’s darker ruminations, finds it’s emotional center in another character study, “Lydia,” a folk song with Price’s guitar is given added weight by a cello’s deeper tones and a violin string section. It’s an ode to limited choices given to a young girl in the lower classes of American society, far removed from the dream, no doubt echoing part of Price’s up-bringing.

Given the emotional highs and lows that run the gamut on Strays, Price ends the album with an acknowledgement that “No one tells you when you’re young you have so much to lose/Until you watch it slip through your hands.” But the gentle rock ballad ends with a note of hope, as she reminds herself and her listener that “Once in a while you stop to notice/Something that’s been there from the start/I made love and love made me,” letting “Love” stand alone as the last word.

Price is the kind of vocal talent who’s musical depth shines in whatever song style attracts her interest, her lyrics speak to a deeper inner truth, that shines with resilience that fuels the emotional core of her voice. This is a solid collection in a growing body of work that speaks to the creative courage it takes to rise above expectations and claim one’s own place and space.

“Light Me Up” / “Change Of Heart” / “Been To The Mountain”

Iris Dement / Sturgill Simpson / Tyler Childers

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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