Traveling the country and sharing music with appreciative audiences sounds like a dream come true. Along with the experience comes meeting new people, extending a fan base, and seeing glorious parts of the United States. When it comes to composing music, however, artists need profound layers of complexities. Especially groups like Midnight North.
This quartet’s upcoming album Under the Lights features Western melodies, splatters of bluesy tunes, and stellar three-part harmonies. Together, Grahame Lesh, Elliott Peck, Alex Jordan, and Connor O’Sullivan bring listeners on their journey across the open highways of the U.S.
Starting the album is the title track. In its entirety it is the perfect song to convey the core of what this album represents. Supported by an upbeat drum build, lyrics like “A few nights under the lights and 40 years on the grind” are the epitome of what this group endures on a yearly basis. Touring brings feelings of excitement and pride, but it’s also attached to anxiousness, constant travel, and longing for home.
Tranquil three-part harmonies in this track contrast perfectly from the rough, Americana-rock tempo of their guitars and drums. While the diction gets a bit messy at a few points, the vocals capture the entirety of touring the east coast & midwest while constantly traveling from place to place. There are no breaks or permanent locations; everything is temporary.
“Playing a Poor Hand Well” depicts making the best of tough situations. Peck shines in this organ and horn-filled track with her powerhouse energy maneuvering around the melodies. As she sings about dealing with what the tour life gives, Jordan and Lesh dance around with gliding harmonies throughout the chorus. Perhaps the coolest aspects of this entire song are the buildups with the organ and horn section between the verses and choruses.
While “Everyday” is not a favorite of mine, this third piece did have some shining moments in encouraging each other to avoid giving into anxiety. Even though the peppier melody is arguably one of the more unique of the 11 tracks, I was not feeling the harmonies as much. Undertones of humming sounded solid as they faded out, but collectively Midnight North’s voices are shadowed by the music. One thing going for these guys in this, however, is the opening. Bluesy horns, drums and guitars were filled with optimistic glimmers of thinking about life if everyday “was like a miracle”. The piece also touches upon a sense of trying to have order and everything going smoothly – aspects that the touring life doesn’t always bring.
A couple of tracks after “Everyday” is where this quartet took it up a notch. The optimistic track “Roamin'” has a strong emphasis on the guitar and drums which drives the chorus and put a spotlight on looking into the future and tackling the next steps ahead. Lyrics “Too far to turn back/ Not close enough to care” express that they are happy to be traveling on the open road and are optimistic about the possibilities of their future destinations. Peck’s low breathy notes and runs in the second chorus are crisp and sound beautiful next to the lower harmony notes of her fellow musicians. In its entirety, this was one of my favorites because it remained intertwined with the core messages of the album and pertained to the traveling lifestyle that Midnight North is accustomed to.
Another favorite track of mine is “Back to California”. Being a San Francisco-based group that tours across the nation, a return to the status quo at home is something that clearly feels relieving for these guys. Their anxious energy in longing for home oozes out of the guitar in on-again off-again chords; clashing cymbals are also huge in supporting their vocals in parts of the verses as well. Additionally, the first chorus is full of incredible harmonies that continue to get louder and stronger as the track progresses.
Ultimately though, what impresses me most about this song is the contrast between the lyrics and the music. The fact is, Midnight North is discussing a downside to touring, yet their music is more energetic than most songs on the album. For example, while the electric guitar guides them as they sing of “nights full of endorphins,” the meaning of the track is to find relief in California and reconnect with all of the places and people that they love and miss.
“The Highway Song” is the final ‘absolute must buy’ on this album. Lesh, Peck, Jordan and Sullivan created this jam session piece that is relaxed in its nature while still being open about the stress of the touring life. Their Western melody is perfectly simplistic and the harmonies throughout are natural and gorgeous next to the electric guitar. Music wise, the guitars play several solo chords in between parts of the verses which shines a beautiful light on the message as a whole. The lyrics describe aspects of the touring life as weary and sore, however, they sing to reflect that in the thick of it all, the group can still relax, unwind and find peace among each other and their music.
Before dissecting some of the pieces that were not up to the caliber of the others, my honorable mention awards go to “Headline From Kentucky” and “Echoes”. The former contains a heavier beat in the bass that is juxtaposed by light tones in the guitar and drums. Elliot’s voice is strongly supported by peaceful background harmonies that characterize what this group is about.
“Echoes” has by far the most rock ‘n’ roll of any of the 11 songs. While the diction falters a bit in the final minute, the instrumental arrangement behind powerful growling vocals really adds a ruggedness to this number. As the group address facing their fears, the drums and cymbals during the chorus support the emotional grit of the lyrics- especially the electric guitars which amp up the energy.
Of the 11 songs, two don’t quite meet the standard that the rest of the album lives by. Midnight North ventured into a more somber, western melody with “Greene County”. In discussing gray skies, debt and the absence of luck, their guitar-centered melody highlights disappointing aspects of the traveling lifestyle. However, while describing being separated from a lover and depicting the county as “no place for a lady,” the harmonies are not as smooth as they are in other numbers. Despite the wonderful expression of agony being exerted about the county, their voices just do not jive as nicely as they do in other areas.
“Little Black Dog” also failed to meet the uniqueness of “Under the Lights”. This closer kicks off with a banjo, an acoustic guitar and shakers, which appears like a special combination on paper. However, this was not really the case. Its tune was very bland and the harmonies were not as special in the way they were delivered. The entire track was one long harmony and it just did not contain the magic that previous songs had. If Elliot’s voice were an octave higher, some diversity could be brought into the mix. Furthermore, it could give the acoustic guitar more emotional value.
My last issue (possibly a question) with “Little Black Dog” was the message itself. Unless the experience of a dog taking on a bear was a metaphor for the traveling lifestyle – which seems like a stretch – it confuses me in terms of its connection to the album’s core.
As a whole, Midnight North produced a quality album that contains a variety of gems. From diverse melodies created on the bass and drums to their stellar harmonies, Under the Lights is an album that deserves to be heard nationwide. While some songs lack the upbeat energy that is prevalent in the music industry, this album is neutral for a classroom setting, relaxing on a car ride home, reading a book, or even going for a nice walk. I highly recommend giving Midnight North’s latest masterpiece a look for its zesty mixture of country, blues, Americana, and light rock.
Americana/Rock - David Simon-Baker at the Greene Room and Allegiant Studios