To the Sunset mixes in a heavy dose of indie rock.
For the better part of a decade, Amanda Shires has been making a name for herself amongst the alt.country crowd that also happens to include, among others, her husband, Jason Isbell. To mention this isn’t to demean Shires’ talent, but rather to provide context: The two are not only married, but Shires performs as part of Isbell’s backing band, the 400 Unit. The couple is alt.country/Americana/country-rock/whateveryouwanttocallit to the core. But as has been the case within mainstream country, an element has crept in that makes it virtually indistinguishable from Top 40. Maintaining a decidedly indie mindset, Shires has taken a similar cross-pollinating approach to her latest, To the Sunset, mixing elements of her previous work with a heavy dose of indie rock.
Like her mainstream contemporaries, Shires’ approach on To the Sunset relies heavily on electronic loops, ethereal synth patches and a decidedly un-country aesthetic. But unlike the flavor-of-the-week country-pop hits currently permeating the radio, Shires’ effort retains the human element once so integral to great country music. Rather than falling back on platitudes and cliches associated with either the “country life” or the modern-day hipster, Shires sticks to what she knows and does best: story-telling. “Leave it Alone” could easily pass for something by Metric or even Arcade Fire in its grandiosity, yet it retains a beating heart that rumbles away inside its electronic exterior. Regardless of its genre, “Leave it Alone” possesses a massive hook that rises and falls with the best pop music, past and present.
Meanwhile, “Charms” is one of the more overtly country-sounding tracks on the album, sounding more than a bit like a post-Rilo Kiley Jenny Lewis, complete with the latter’s yearning vocalizing and subtly damning lyrics. Were they still an active group, Rilo Kiley would likely be Shires’ closest comparison in bridging the gap between indie rock, country/Americana and electronic music. Which, again, isn’t meant to negate what Shires has done but to show the range of styles on display, resulting in an album that transcends rote genre-defying and can more sensibly and correctly be described simply as modern music. Rather than going for a niche market, Shires opens up her impressive talents to everyone, creating a record that will appeal to fans of country, indie rock and assorted underground points in between.
“Eve’s Daughter” is a hard-charging rocker that relies heavy on the fuzz to mask the underlying twang that betrays its unabashed country roots. Similarly, “Break Out the Champagne” plays like Dolly Parton backed by any number of scruffy indie rockers: “I said, ‘Break out the champagne/ Everybody look out below/ Let’s get on with the shit show/ Here goes a toast/ Adios.” There’s just enough of a southern drawl and twang to her vocals for the soaring melody to mirror the greatest of country kiss-off songs, something for which Shires can be eminently proud. Anyone listening past the rockier grit and electronic sheen will hear To the Sunset for what it is: a damn fine 21st century country rock record.
Though she’s been making records under her own name for some time now, her latest will likely free her from the need to mention her husband. Here she proves once and for all that she is clearly an artist in her own right and one worth keeping an eye on as country music in all its myriad forms continues to mutate and spread into wholly new and different directions. To the Sunset is well worth your time and attention, regardless of how you feel about country music or indie rock.