Utah Carol | Rodeo Queen (Stomping Ground)

cd_utahThis is one of the few records I've ever heard that would sound great in any situation. Driving in your car. Playing it in the background at a small dinner party. Curled up at night with your headphones on.





Perfection. They say it's an elusive goal, that sweetly beckoning horizon that one can never reach—especially the ambitious artist who spends hours and hours in the recording studio in an effort to fully realize their vision. They usually fall short, of course—and part of the stimulation of being a music fan is experiencing the highs and lows of the groups you like: loving tracks 2, 5, and 8 on that newest record, for example, but being kinda disenchanted with the rest. And those of us who review music…we're thrilled when we get to tell you about a stellar effort, but we're all too familiar with that syndrome of if only. You know what I mean. "If only they hadn't put those two crappy songs on here; if only they had a producer; if only the vocals were stronger…" If it weren't for "if only," reviewers would be no different from PR people.

I say all this as an introduction to my review of Utah Carol's third album Rodeo Queen, because it's startling to hear such a perfect record. It's startling to hear vocals that are so winsomely affecting, arrangements that are so organically right, lyrics that are so effortlessly touching. This is one of the few records I've ever heard that would sound great in any situation. Driving in your car. Playing it in the background at a small dinner party. Curled up at night with your headphones on. Letting it accompany you while you work at your computer on a Sunday afternoon. There's something so pure about this record, honestly, that it transcends every genre, every category. Chicago twosome Grant Birkenbeuel and JinJa Davis were touched by magic making Rodeo Queen, and something tells me their intentions were fairly modest starting out. It's usually not the maniacal studio freaks who come closest to perfection. It's the artists who relax, try to have a good time, and find ways to spruce up even their smallest songs.

In terms of style, most would describe Utah Carol as "pastoral folk-pop," and they're gonna be compared to Mojave 3 a lot. But the 13 songs on this disc provide a singular, satisfyingly consistent experience that few groups, M3 included, ever achieve. Let's start with the vocals. Male-female vocals are a staple ingredient in pop music, but it takes a certain specific blend to get the harmonies just right. Boy, do Grant and JinJa nail 'em. There's a smooth, intoxicating naturalism to their singing that's a thing of exquisite beauty. When the vocals are this good, all you need are strong tunes played well.

"Kimberly Smiles" sounds like waking up on a bright spring morning after several days of rain. It's one of several songs in a row that simply reinvent the word "lilting" for UC's own aesthetic. "Come Back Baby" is a sweetly melancholy lament for a departed love; if you want an example of how understatement can be an art, listen to this gem: "I suppose you think I spend my nights cryin'/ I'm just tired of being lost," goes one poignant lyric. Then there's the subtle whistling and unexpected horns on "Ruby," the elegiac "Whisper to Me Sweetly," and the perky rocker "Sam's Ranch."

But on a virtually perfect record, the most perfect song of all is "Twilight Time," one of the most exuberant four and a half minutes of acoustic pop I've ever heard. With Ted Sirota's irresistible percussion, romantic lyrics, and utterly incandescent harmonies, Utah Carol weaves a spellbinding aural tapestry. "Willow trees in springtime, and oh, those quiet April nights/ The stars go on forever, and I've known you for all my life," sings our dazzling duo. What a gorgeous song! And "Can I Ride With You?" is almost as good, with its chiming guitars and loping rhythm.

Honestly, this is the kind of record reviewers dream of stumbling across. From start to finish, it contains a level of grace, joyful humanity, and love-inspired empathy that can subtly alter your outlook on life. And the music? Yep, it's perfect. Thank you, Utah Carol! You've just shown a thousand other bands out there that the impossible can be achieved after all. A+ | Kevin Renick

RIYL: Mojave 3, Hem, Iron and Wine

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