Home field advantage: the rich terrain of Caroline Keys' Mean to Stay 

At its core, Caroline Keys' debut album has all the elements of a classic country-folk collection. It features some honky-tonk themes and threads of Western swing, plus a few slow-burning, bittersweet, pedal steel-seeped tunes and songs that roll along like a 1950s R&B garage ballad. And yet Mean to Stay is refreshingly not a throwback. Small instrumental details drawn from the realms of psychedelia and electronic noise add a curious edge to the familiarity. The opening track, "Dance Wax," starts with a mesmerizing bass drone, followed by other sounds that are not so easy to pinpoint: maybe a train rumbling by, or the crashing of waves, or creatures communicating by echolocation. The instrumental "Back to Hungry Horse" occupies the dark, old-time territory of "Shady Grove," but it also features some eerie, spacey components that evoke Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks soundtrack. These experimental bits come and go so quickly that they never distract, but they provide enough oddity to uproot listeners from their comfortable perch in standard-issue country-folk.

Technically this is Keys' first solo record, but the Missoula stalwart has enough songwriting and recording experience under her belt that it hardly seems right to characterize it as a debut. She's already played some of these songs on stages across town, including when she and her band, the LaneSplitters, opened for Dwight Yoakam at the Wilma in September. Over the last decade, she's honed her chops with alt-country and rock bands including the Best Westerns, the Shiveries, The Dirty Birds and Stellarondo, mostly as a backup singer who plays guitar and banjo. There are a lot of hugely talented musicians in Missoula, and Keys is one of them, but she also has a larger-than-life personality that draws musicians to her—a charming sincerity that translates to her music. The decision to front a band and attach her name to it didn't come easy for her, she told the Indy back in November. But in a lot of ways, it wasn't up to her: The arrival of Mean to Stay is her inevitable arrival as a frontwoman, something all her fans have been waiting for, even if on-stage and in the studio she shares songwriting and vocal leads with the LaneSplitters.

click to enlarge The new album from Caroline Keys, center, features, from left, local musicians Matt Tipton, Jeff Turman, Nate Biehl and Gibson Hartwell. - PHOTO BY BESS BIRD
  • photo by Bess Bird
  • The new album from Caroline Keys, center, features, from left, local musicians Matt Tipton, Jeff Turman, Nate Biehl and Gibson Hartwell.

Mean to Stay includes keyboards and vocals from Adam Selzer of Type Foundry, the Portland studio where the album was recorded. And it features some of the best and boldest multi-instrumentalists in Missoula—Nate Biehl, Gibson Hartwell, Jeff Turman and Matt Tipton—which is how this album maintains its complex balance.

It's also a diverse collection of tunes in which all tracks maintain their own character while still adding up to a cohesive whole. The swaggering "Fort Benton" feels like a lost song track from Steve Earle's 1986 breakout debut Guitar Town, and "Two Story House" is more in the vein of a lighthearted Tom T. Hall song, though it deals in a depressing reality. Keys and all the musicians on this album have pushed their songwriting to new levels over the years, and Mean to Stay is a peak that should stand up over time. The stories chronicle failing marriages, unrequited love (and lust) and familiar Montana characters and places with all the humor and heartbreak of the classics, and just enough surprises to make it all seem new.

Caroline Keys and the LaneSplitters play an album release party at the Top Hat Thu., June 1, at 9:30 PM. $5.

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print

Tags: ,

Today | Wed | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon
VFW Tuesday Trivia

VFW Tuesday Trivia @ VFW

Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation