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Margo Price frees herself with the eclectic Strays

"Strays"

Release date: 13 January 2023
8/10
Margo Price - Strays cover
09 January 2023, 10:00 Written by John Amen
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With her fourth LP, Strays, Margo Price moves from self-mythologizing origin stories to reflections on troubled relationships to compelling character studies.

While her vocals ground her in a country vein, her sonic contexts borrow from and integrate blues-rock, classic-rock, and pop sounds. The result is her most freewheeling sequence to date.

Opener “Been to the Mountain” is built around a bluesy riff that might’ve been plucked from Loretta Lynn’s Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose or Dylan circa Modern Times. Throughout the song, Price voices her diverse experiences (“I’ve been a child and I’ve been a mother / … used to be a waitress but now I’m a consumer”). “Light Me Up” further mines a roadhouse template while Price embraces a more vulnerable vocal timbre, guest guitarist Mike Campbell offering notable rhythm and lead parts.

While “Been to the Mountain” and “Light Me Up” show Price elaborating on rock signatures apparent since her debut, 2016’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, “Radio” spotlights her embracing a newly honed pop approach. Instrumentation is bouncy, crystalline, summery, Sharon Van Etten contributing an understated back-up vocal. With “Time Machine,” too, Price displays her fresh pop affinities, her vocal complemented by low-key steel-guitar and synthy accents.

With the Springsteen-inflected “Country Road,” Price effuses restlessness, expressing desire to break free of perennial constraints (hometown, family, dead-end jobs). “Hell in the Heartland,” meanwhile, features a mournful melody, as well as palpable descriptions of disorientation and ambivalence (“Maybe I finally got too high / now I’m coming down,” “You’re everything I want / someone I don’t want anymore”).

“Lydia” is the album’s centerpiece, an acoustic-driven track textured by seductive string parts. Price segues between first- and third-person perspectives, alternately reveling in confessionalism and portraiture. Perhaps drawing from her own experiences with substance abuse, Price offers an empathetic take on addiction. Additionally, her critical commentary on the world’s indifference is a refinement of sociopolitical themes explored on 2017’s All American Made. Halfway through the piece, she insists, “just make a decision Lydia,” perhaps alluding to AA’s 3rd step, which involves making a commitment to recovery and the self-searching it entails.

Though Price and her husband Jeremy Ivey composed much of Strays’ content during a mushroom-filled odyssey to South Carolina, the project as a whole doesn’t ring as overtly psychedelic. If anything, it points to an underlying sense of artistic freedom and spontaneous eclecticism perhaps invoked by the “magic fungi,” even if the resulting sounds are relatively earthy. That is, while it would be misleading to refer to Strays as Price’s “psilocybin sequence,” it may come to be known as the album with which she creatively emancipated herself.

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