The Marfa Tapes finds the three old-hats of country riding each other’s waves to melancholy and joyous heights.
Toward the end of The Marfa Tapes, you’ll hear Miranda Lambert sing “Tin Man,” a signature song from her 2016 masterpiece The Weight of These Wings. She’s probably performed it at every show she’s played in the last five years, and this rendition exhibits a relaxed, comfortable familiarity. When it’s over, she immediately tries to downplay the majesty of the moment, complaining about a buzzing guitar string. But Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, who penned the song with her and accompany on acoustic guitars, won’t tolerate any self-effacing bullshit: “That was your brain buzzing,” one of them counters.
Moments like this encapsulate everything that makes The Marfa Tapes so special: for Lambert it may qualify as a minor album by a major artist, but its modesty is the whole key to its charm. Locked out of the studio and unable to tour, the three artists spent one warm quarantine evening camping out in the little Texas town that gives the album its name, recording 15 songs in single takes. Splitting the difference between a demo reel and an audience-less concert recording, The Marfa Tapes is a study in the warmth and camaraderie shared between three friends, and in the simple pleasure of playing music for its own sake — not to preserve a “definitive” take, but to surrender to the joy and spontaneity of the moment. Accordingly, you’ll hear the wind howling across the microphone, the occasional clunk of a guitar stand, even the sound of a helicopter passing overhead. You’ll hear all three performers offer friendly encouragements to one another; Lambert laughs more than once, and declares several of these songs to be “fun.” In “Geraldine,” she makes what seems like an impromptu decision to imitate the stutter and skip of a banged-up vinyl record (“G-g-geraldine!”), prompting a notable uptick in the song’s bristling energy. And in Wildcard highlight “Tequila Does,” one of just two familiar compositions here, she briefly forgets the lyrics, prompting more giggles and guffaws.
The new co-writes are all deeply pleasurable, though to be fair, it’s hard to imagine any of them becoming standards on the level of “Tin Man.” Many of the standouts are lovelorn ballads: “In His Arms” dreams of the one who got away, while “Waxahachie” traces a post-breakup trail of tears. But the more playful numbers can be equally rewarding: “Two-Step Down to Texas” suggests that Ingram and Randall share Lambert’s affinity for “old sh!t,” while “We’ll Always Have the Blues” is a breezy shuffle, complete with some rough whistling. Country pros that they are, all three songwriters have a knack for melancholy, chronicling heartache with precision, detail, and economy. (Representative line: “I don’t wear my ring no more/ kids and time will learn to love us both.”) But even the saddest songs are played with a palpable sense of joy — the kind that emanates from friendship, from shared moments, and from the sheer pleasure of sending songs up into the sky and out into the night.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2021 | Part 1.