A new Bartees Strange record arrives with fanfare not necessarily befitting an artist of his scope and reach. While well regarded after a stint in hardcore act Stay Inside and on his solo debut Live Forever in 2020, Strange’s interviews and PR always seem to outsize his actual influence.
“As I get close to achieving things that I’ve wanted for a long time, I feel my appetite growing with it … I talk to my therapist about that a lot,” Strange told Rolling Stone in May. “I feel like I’m going to run myself into the ground if I keep raising the bar for myself. But that’s how I am. I love that shit. I like doing things that are hard to achieve. And the bar keeps going up.”
Strange clearly wants to play in the deepest waters of rock stardom and influence. And while many use The National as a standard reference point for Strange’s musical influences (particularly after he gained notice with his EP covering the band’s songs, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy), on Farm to Table, his latest release, the music reflects far less lofty aspirations – or at least execution.
Which isn’t to say that Farm to Table isn’t an engaging, interesting listen – it just means listeners should adjust expectations accordingly. While Live Forever played fast and loose with genre, the latest release establishes and maintains a more consistent groove that sacrifices transcendence in favour of cohesiveness. Even if the results won’t change the world, they are a functional, enjoyable whole.
Opener “Heavy Heart” establishes Band of Horses as a central touchstone and reference point. All propulsive build, the track tells the story of relationships come and gone. “There’s reasons for heavy hearts / This past year I thought I was broken,” Strange croons. “Some nights I feel just like my dad / Rushing around,” he adds in the chorus, explaining away his shortcomings while reminding the listener that ultimately he cannot ask for the help he needs – “Then I remember I rely too much on upon / My heavy heart.” Follower “Mulholland Dr.,” echoes a similar vibe – verse, chorus, verse, heavy on the polish and production.
Farm to Table pays off when Strange lets go of that overly-tight production and lets the songs breathe. Closer “Hennessy” brings the album to a wrap with the feel of an impromptu barroom jam, while highlight “Wretched” blasts into a full-on raveup. Lead single “Cosigns” brags about his newfound indie clout, name checking everyone from Phoebe Bridgers to Lucy Dacus and Justin Vernon, and damn if the song doesn’t payoff those lofty ambitions. But of course there’s a reason those acts are recognisable by their first names alone when Strange namedrops them: their consistent excellence. By contrast, Strange follows “Cosigns” with “Tours,” a meandering ballad that would be best described as mix of Jack Johnson and Ben Harper. “Black Gold” and “Hold the Line,” while lyrically poetic and timely, also fail to achieve memorable status.
Largely due to those influences, Farm to Table is a record that will ultimately fit better in the dorm room than the Pitchfork year end lists. And while there’s nothing wrong with a populist bent in indie rock, the record does suggest that the coronation of Bartees Strange may have to wait.
Words by Ryan Self