West Virginia’s Missy Raines plays a kind of country-inflected, middle-of-the-road music that used to be described as “adult contemporary”. Not quirky enough to be alt-anything, not raucous enough to be rock or mellow enough to be easy listening, it’s just sort of… there. Without the twang of Lucinda Williams or the sweetness of Norah Jones or the pipes of Judith Hill, Raines finds herself stranded in a sort of musical no-woman’s-land. The album, in other words, isn’t terribly satisfying or memorable. It is, however, pefectly inoffensive.
Opening tracks “I Learn” and “Blackest Crow” both make use of low-key instrumentation – mellow guitars, shuffling drums, tasteful bass. Raines’ voice is the centerpiece here, and she can certainly carry a tune; her voice is warm and full, and her phrasing suggests a personal connection to the material. Something is lacking, though; perhaps a memorable melody or sense of urgency or, who knows, just a little more verve to get things going.
At its weakest, New Frontier lacks even this much energy. Title song “New Frontier” might sound great in a coffee shop late at night on a snowy evening, but on record, it just comes off as watery and dull. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only song that falls flat. “Long Way Back Home” and “Where You Found Me” are equally bland, although the latter does have something resemblign a catchy chorus. It’s not enough to elevate the material, though. Meanwhile, “Nightingale” might work as a mellow Neil Young strummer if Neil Young were to sing it, but Raines’ voice isn’t half as engaging as Neil’s, so it’s just another midtempo crooner that sort of slides off the listener.
The news isn’t all bad. The band is tight and the the record is cleanly recorded and nicely balanced. Maybe that’s part of the problem; things sound almost a little too clean, too balanced, too staged, too poised. Even snowy-late-night music needs a little edge from time to time.
Listeners looking for standout tracks would do well to listen to “What’s the Callin’ For”, a bluegrassy-electric mishmash that contains the very verve that is missing from so much of the rest of the record. The twangy guitar is a joy, and it’s a shame that a.) it was saved for the penultimate track, and b.) there is no more afterward. Following this is album closer “American Crow”, a banjo-picked tune that, again, breaks up the formula Raines has fallen into, and is the stronger for it. It’s another quiet song, but its placement on the album lends it a gravitas and sweetness that is missing from many others.
These last two songs on the record are, ironically, the highlights on an album that is perhaps too successful in fashioning a groove and then staying in it. Raines has an expressive voice and her band hits all the right notes, but to my ears there is something missing. Listeners seeking a mellow vibe, however, might find something here to enjoy, while the last two cuts suggest that the band is capable of pushing their limits into more interesting territory.