REVIEW: Mike McClure’s “Looking Up” is Crooked Optimism

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If you’ve listened to enough country music – GOOD country – you’ve realized that not everyone is bound for glory. More often, it’s a long, twisty back road filled with side gigs and personal stumbles that gets an artist to a place where he’s making a living at music (and, hopefully, gaining enough material for a good record or two). Red Dirt veteran Mike McClure has traveled that back road – a few times – in order to bring us his tenth album, Looking Up, a title reflecting his own crooked optimism in this most pessimistic of times.

Mike McClure has spent time as a band member (The Great Divide, a 1990s band out of Oklahoma), a producer (Cross Canadian Ragweed and Turnpike Troubadours were two of his more notable clients), and a touring musician who found himself overrun by drugs and alcohol. Now sober and living a healthier life, McClure is ready to sing about that period of transition. “I Am Not Broken” starts like a road song that takes a detour – “I woke up in a parking lot/Sun was burning down on me hot/as west hell.” Suitably, McClure’s voice carries some of the road weariness of Tom Petty, but the song itself is more defiant than run-down. He doesn’t obscure the trouble he’s brought on himself – “The bright side ain’t the first place/I go hide.” But, buoyed by horns and his driving rhythm guitar, he still chooses to push forward – “Yeah, I mighta got bent up/As the days got spent up/But I am not broken.”

“Holiday Blown” is a raw look at the price paid by the folks who happen to love addicts. McClure’s grandfather served in World War II and brought home terrors and bad habits – “Daddy likes anything/That makes him feel like he wants to.” That soldier may have left the best of himself overseas, but by looking at his grandfather’s ruinous behavior, McClure sees that he has the opportunity to choose a different path in his own life.

Introspection is found across Looking Up. Musically, “Orion” is a cross between a sci-fi western and a late-night road song – “It’s late in the evening/Really almost morning/In the middle of nowhere.” McClure feels the progress that he’s making in his new life, but it only reminds him what he has left to do – “Closer only feels farther away.” “Sword and Saddle” is the most country-ish song on the record (complete with accordion, and it finds McClure catching up to the man he feels he can be – “Remember that if I’m not dead/Then I’m gaining on the life I should/Have led.” Both tracks are bolstered by excellent guitar solos from McClure – his work is a stand-out feature on the album.

McClure’s overarching theme on Looking Up is focusing on what’s important and sifting out the rest. He even co-produced the album at his own studio with his partner, Chrislyn Lawrence. This back-to-basics approach is most evident on “Distractions,” a re-worked tune from his 2011 album, Fifty Billion. The arrangement on the original is busy and, well, a bit distracting (befitting a man who was most likely quite distracted at the time). Here, though, he boils the tune down to his guitar and a subtle (and quite lovely) cello part from Tim Lorsch. Songwriting seems to be his refuge from the noise – “I like it when the words just want to fall out/I like it better when they don’t even feel like mine.” He’s supplemented the original version with a simple, but critical, new line: “You are not your past.” For a recently sober guy trying to navigate his way through a landmine-filled 2020, McClure has successfully boiled life down to what he needs and poured the distractions away.

Looking Up was produced by Chrislyn Lawrence and Mike McClure, mixed by Steve Christensen and mastered by Chris Longwood. All songs were written by McClure, with additional songwriting credits going to Lawrence, Scott Copeland, Gary Thomason and Sherman Connelly. Musicians on the album include Lawrence (harmony vocals), Eric Hansen (drums), Ruben Salazar (bass), Jon Knudson (sax, organ, keys, accordion), Austin Mayse (trumpets), and Tim Lorsch (cello, violins).

Order Looking Up here: http://mikemcclureband.com/mmb-products/looking-up-vinyl-pre-order

Get details for Mike’s album release live stream (Saturday, September 26) here: https://www.prekindle.com/event/17942-mike-mcclure-looking-up-album-release-at-mercury-lounge-live

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