The Cactus Blossoms fill a unique niche in revisiting the early days of country music with Everly Brothers-like harmonies.
The Cactus Blossoms are the latest in a long line of 21st century acts to mine music from the first half of the 20th century (well, pre-1960, at least) for inspiration. Brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey sing simple songs that hearken back to the early days of country and pre-rock and roll popular music. With their constant harmonizing and their tendency towards the wistful, if not maudlin, their sound consists of equal parts Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers, with various other minor twists lurking around the edges.
You’re Dreaming’s first two songs set the stage nicely for the album. The loping “Stoplight Kisses” features spritely vocals while Alex Hall’s drums are gentle but propulsive. Despite being just over two minutes long, the song takes a break between verses for a brief but effective finger picked guitar solo on a hollow body electric. It’s a distinct sound that decisively places the Blossoms’ style in ancient times, at least in terms of pop music. “You’re Dreaming” is a love ballad where the harmonized vocals are front and center, and all of the background music seems designed to be as unobtrusive as possible.
This technique of tamping down everything but the vocals is present on several of the record’s many ballads. “Queen of Them All” features sparse but insistent reverberating guitar notes, while “Powder Blue” is notable for its 6/8 feel, which, yes, makes the latter resemble a countrified “Earth Angel” or “Unchained Melody.” But it puts the burden of the songs entirely on the vocals, which, fortunately for the Cactus Blossoms, are strong. Still, without an interesting lyrical hook neither of these songs quite takes off.
That’s not the case with “If I Can’t Win". This ballad isn’t quite as lightly arranged as some of the aforementioned songs. There’s an actual drumbeat and a real part for the guitar here, but Burkum and Torrey make the song work by going full on “woe is me”. The lyrics are packed with specific detail, describing mundane surroundings like, “Orange curtains and pale blue walls / If I can’t win I’m gonna lose it all.” By digging into their protagonist’s creeping loneliness and worry, the Cactus Blossoms make the song much more memorable. “Mississippi” also benefits from specificity, by virtue of the band setting its yearning tropical fantasies in the unusual locale of the titular state’s Gulf coast.
You’re Dreaming’s more uptempo songs are also a mixed bag. “No More Crying the Blues” sounds like a Buddy Holly selection, with a buzzing electric guitar and energetic delivery. Too bad the lyrics and main melody are bland and forgettable. “Change Your Ways or Die”, on the other hand, is full of dark pronouncements about coming disaster and creepy echoing guitars, and the band’s energetic embrace of speed and a minor key makes it a lot of fun. “Clown Collector” splits the difference, with slightly silly lyrics on top of entertaining upbeat music. Some of the couplets are clever, like “I’m conscientious / She’s an objector”. But the refrain, “She’s a clown collector” feels a little oblique, like Burkum and Torrey made up their own 1930’s-style term and tried to write a song justifying their creation.
Overall, You’re Dreaming succeeds because the Cactus Blossoms have found a unique niche and fill it ably. Plenty of roots and Americana acts over the past 15 years have put their own spins on early and mid-20th century music, but this particular take feels fresh. There’s a strong sense of style running through the album, a confidence that makes it seem like Burkum and Torrey are doing exactly what they want. There are a handful of songs here that go a touch beyond just recreating an earlier style, and those are the best ones. If The Cactus Blossoms can expand their ear for detail more consistently into their songwriting and lyrics, they can be flat out great. But they aren’t quite there yet.