Published May 13, 2014Among the most exciting records of 2014, Sturgill Simpson's sophomore LP plays like an album-length reward for fans of country music with long memories and open minds. Full of clever references to classic country stars, songs and seminal albums (the title is a play on Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, one of the most important country records of the 1960s), Sturgill's music is at once traditional and visionary. He is playful, but reverent. Salon just dubbed him "the Radiohead of country," and that's not even that crazy a comparison; what he does is not formally unfamiliar but is nevertheless reimagined in a destabilizing new way. It is "new country," but for real.
Sturgill's voice, so reminiscent of Waylon Jennings at the height of the outlaw period, anchors us, as do his traditional song structures. But, from the woozy, poetic lyrics he sings to the psychedelic, brilliantly engineered pedal steel and slide guitars that push at the edges of the aural landscape, nothing much about this feels straightforward. More than anything else, this record has been produced (by Dave Cobb, the man behind the recent shots from Jason Isbell and Lindi Ortega) with a mind to crafting a novel listener experience. The result is clear: one of the best albums of the year. (High Top Mountain Records/Sony Music Canada)