Country trio Midland sparked a lot of unnecessarily heated debates back when they first arrived. Their throwback aesthetic and sound — a playful, scuffed-up nod to the oft-derided Urban Cowboy era in country and its characteristic softness — drew suspicion from anyone who shaped their idea of masculinity around Waylon or Willie. Then there was the fact that singer Mark Wystrach’s résumé included acting and underwear modeling, while bassist Cameron Duddy had pop superstar connections as the video director for Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Uptown Funk.” Authenticity fetishists cried foul, obscuring the fact that Midland’s debut On the Rocks was actually an undeniably polished, enjoyable set of tunes.
Let It Roll, the group’s second album, maintains that immaculately disheveled approach, expanding Wystrach, Duddy, and bandmate Jess Carson’s stylistic palette in new and interesting ways. Lead single “Mr. Lonely,” a rollicking honky-tonk jam about a loverman who “all the girls are talkin’ about,” sounds like Dwight Yoakam answering George Strait’s “The Fireman,” while “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band” — in spite of its title — has more in common with the FM-rock guitar heroics of AC/DC and the thunderous drums of John Bonham.
But things get really interesting when Midland slow things down a bit: “Cheatin’ Songs” mines the smooth country-soul of Ronnie Milsap and “Put the Hurt on Me” wafts into the same dreamy headspace as Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” putting a spotlight on the trio’s lovely layered harmonies. “Cheatin’ By the Rules” is plain wonderful, coming on like Billy Joel before morphing into Warren Zevon as Wystrach lays out some strict guidelines for two pragmatic adults finding some passion outside their marriages. “We both got somebody/We lost the fire for/That ain’t no reason to treat ’em cruel,” he sings, with nary a trace of the anguish usually found in cheating songs.
Wystrach occasionally garbles his lines to the point of unintelligibility — try to decipher all of “I Love You, Goodbye” without a lyric sheet — but he’s a magnetic presence and gives some of his strongest vocal performances, growling with gusto on “Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song” and crooning delicately on “Put the Hurt on Me.” As a bonus, Duddy and Carson also get their own turns to lead, with Duddy evoking a chilled-out West Coast mood in “Lost in the Night” and Carson convincingly presenting himself as a weary troubadour on the album-closing “Roll Away.” It’s a surprising curveball, and a statement that the group’s fluid musical identity is a feature, not a bug.