Bartees Strange might well be indie rock’s biggest breakout success of the past several years.
Within the span of a year, he went from a relative unknown releasing an EP of The National covers to an acclaimed indie rock polymath, fusing a seemingly bottomless well of musical influences on his 2020 debut record, Live Forever. That album was scrappy and ambitious, with Strange finally getting the chance to prove himself after years of hustling. In contrast, Strange’s follow-up, Farm To Table, finds him on top of the world, taking a well-deserved victory lap and offering resonant meditations on his burgeoning indie rock stardom.
Though the trappings of indie rock fame are a far cry from the kind enjoyed by today’s chart-toppers, it doesn’t seem to make a difference for Strange. For the first time in his life, he’s doing music full-time. He’s even signed to the same label as his idols, The National. In that context, Farm To Table serves as his moment to celebrate, savor, and reflect.
On “Cosigns” Strange pulls a page from the world of hip-hop, flexing his expanding roster of indie rock connections like Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Barnett, and Justin Vernon. There’s an absolute euphoric bliss that runs through tracks like this, “Wretched” and “Heavy Heart”. From the moment those massive horn lines hit on the opener, it is clear Strange is swinging for the fences, deploying his most infectious melodies and taking the record to soaring emotional highs. At a time when the world of indie is often more subtle and subdued than ever, Strange seems ready to take his music to the biggest stage possible, crafting music with broad appeal while retaining the stirring emotion beneath.
But while the big-tent ambitions of Farm To Table make for some of Strange’s most exciting fare, they also narrow his range sightly, making the record feel in some ways more creatively restrained than his debut. Left field genre turns like “Flagey God” are less prevalent here, as Strange’s predilection for genre-blending is subsumed into the mix of massive arena-ready hooks and plaintive acoustic indie. But once you dig deeper into the tracks and the detailed mixes, there is still a rewarding adventurous edge that bleeds through, such as the electronic touches and roaring climax on “Escape This Circus” or the constantly shifting instrumental palette of “Wretched”.
Meanwhile, the second half of the record slows the pace down a bit, pulling in more influences from folk, neo-soul, and acoustic singer/songwriter fare. At moments, Strange can come off like a genre-bending Jeff Buckley, especially on the spotlit guitar solos of “Hold The Line”. These tracks put the focus on his stark instrumentals, exquisite production, and velveteen vocals, but also give the chance for Strange to grapple with the costs and complications of his newfound fame.
“Heavy Heart” and “Tours” reflect on Strange’s life on the road as he is forced to be less present in his loved ones’ lives, just as his military father was when he was called on his own tours. ("I never want to miss you this bad / I never meant to run out like that / Sometimes I feel just like my dad / Rushing around”). Similarly, “Black Gold” and “Hennessey” long for connection and community, with the latter offering the most soulful moment on the record as it draws the album to a close.
Ultimately, “Hennesy” feels like a communal prayer as much as a song, a moment of quiet vulnerability as Strange shares the limelight, his voice mingling into one of many as his community lifts him up in celebration and triumph. It’s a moment he has earned, and a reminder of all the people and places that have shaped his road to success. The no-holds-barred celebration that is Farm To Table is for them too.