Lindsay Lou is naked on her latest record - not just emotionally, but literally unclothed - right on the CD cover. Thanks to the artistry and tastefulness of the photo, though, it's something you might not recognize a dozen times in seeing it, if at all. That's an apt metaphor for the Michigan native's music - it can be simple and unadorned, but there's an elusive beauty and bravery at work. 2018 was an eventful year for the singer/songwriter, with tours to Europe and Australia, as well as a move to Nashville. That relocation has energized the work and led to the album's excellent title track.
If you're a fan of Americana heard on NPR or sold at a Starbucks, you will likely find a comfy home in these tunes. Longtime bandmates The Flatbellys are still around to backup Lou (including husband Joshua Rilko). But for simplicity's sake, they're not on the masthead now. The all-bluegrass-all-the-time baggage has been jettisoned, too. 2015's "Ionia" sounded way too homegrown, with the strings overpowering the mixes.
The wisest move shown on "Southland" is recognizing Lou's voice as the best instrument in the band. That tone can be lush as Kate Bush or Bonnie Raitt cool. Sometimes it makes the proceedings easy-breezy and listen-to-this weighty at the same time. One highlight is opener "Roll With Me," a groovy admonition that Lou's nobody's homebody. But the prize of the litter is "Shining in the Distance" - we get breathy to full-blast vocals atop a stirring gospel anthem. What's it about? A world without war? An age of no tooth decay? It's cool that it's left for listeners to decide for themselves what that far, but not too-far, ideal might be. More than a few of the song subjects concern the navigation of how we as people might best fill our days ("Go There Alone"). Consider it sweet relief from the overfamiliarity of yet another look at two folks in or out of love.
The tracks where Rilko shares co-vocal duties can sound like another, goofier band (remember that one-hit wonder Timbuk 3?) But even with the handful of songs Lou didn't write, you're always given something worthwhile to ponder ("The River That I Knew"). And bonus points to bandmate Mark Lavengood. He deftly picks and chooses musical holes to fill out superbly, with whatever stringed instrument is on hand (often steel resonator guitar).
If you haven't heard of Lindsay Lou or the Flatbellys yet, this would be an ideal jumping-on point. It's a real singer's band that pick their instruments and ideas, with skill.