Album Review: Bartees Strange – Farm To Table

[4AD; 2022]

Genre ambiguity has been a duplicitous trait of Bartees Cox Jr.’s work right from the get-go. After some low-key early projects, he hit his stride in 2020 with a series of promising TV On the Radio-tinged singles like “Mustang” and “Boomer”, leading up to his rock-solid debut Live Forever. Since then, he’s catapulted into the public eye, leading to his presence on marquees supporting the likes of Car Seat Headrest, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and later this year his heroes The National (whom made a covers EP of back before his debut album).

Adopting the moniker Bartees Strange was apt as his music treads in many pools, incorporating hip-hop, emo, indie rock, and a bit of jazz for kicks. This approach has provided him a chameleon-like presence in music, but he is an indie rock musician at his core, especially now that he’s signed to iconic label 4AD, which is also where The National have been for the last decade.

A bigger budget and a bigger presence have led to this highly anticipated sophomore LP Farm to Table, an album chock full of the same sentiments as Live Forever, but expanding into various genres that Cox didn’t attempt on his debut. This go-round comes with a mashup album cover depicting The Last Supper, Cox’s hometown Mustang in Oklahoma, clippings of his childhood, and naturally him playing instruments. This diced and scattered appearance is apropos for Farm to Table – a messy concoction that’s still pretty fun.

It’s clear a lot of heart went into Farm to Table, with a lot of focus on reflection that he pairs with more frequent guitar work. Cox is also still a master of the guitar, and when he busts a melody out he busts it in spectacular fashion. He goes raw on the emotional first single from Farm to Table, “Heavy Heart”, which finds him in dire need of a hug but also enriched by his sensitivity, a lacking trait in modern music that is emphasized through fine string work.

He’s bouncing around between more popular genres this time, but the auto-tune that popped up on Live Forever is barely even traceable here. There’s more of a folk-pop presence on Farm to Table, perhaps a throwback to being raised in a Midwestern state that favors six strings to beats. Cox can still soar in this approach though, like on “Escape This Circus” where he lets out his frustrations through powerful vocal performances over brash guitar in the track’s denouement.

However, there’s a handful of beguiling decisions. The jittering “We Were Only Close For Like Two Weeks” is an unnecessary intermission that adds nothing to the flow of Farm to Table. That’s a minor, one-minute qualm compared to the baffling display on the messy dance-infused “Wretched”, an uneven detour after the Butch Walker-vibed pop-rocker “Mullholland Dr”. Neither of these two styles really gel, instead coming off lopsided, whether intentionally or not. The wiggly rhythms are still there and ear-pleasing, but this kind of cut would make more sense on a more focused album than on the genre-hopping approach of a Bartees Strange release.

On the other hand there’s the excellent “Cosigns”, a tribute to his idols and tour mates that leads to a harrowing screech “It’s never enough” that can shake even the most steadfast. The bending and weaving of his sound is still present, even when he slows it down for the syrupy “Hold the Line”, proof that Cox is a strong proponent for diversification in his music.

Wandering between all of these genres was what made Live Forever feel fresh and assured, however the less-focused Farm to Table gets bogged down periodically. It also feel much less risky, even when Cox tackles racism on “Hennessy” or drops an N-word or two throughout the record. It’s a decent follow-up, but one that unfortunately comes off less Bartees Strange and more Bartees Safe.