Gina Villalobos has been praised as a unique artist on the rise, acclaimed for her ability to give accessibility to roots rock and Americana with a raw, indie sound, and for the most part, the California girl doesn't disappoint.
With her latest release, Days On Their Side, there are equal shares of inspired brilliance and inconsistency; namely, the middle slumps when compared to the 1-2-3-4 punch of the album's first half and the showstopping indie folk informed closing duo of Second Chance and Die Here Tonight, and just can't grab you as well. The bookends save Days On Their Side, as they unquestionably show Gina Villalobos at her best.
Take a Beating begins with an immediate alt-country twang, but it is Villalobos who comes to the forefront in no time - her ragged, almost weathered voice easily evokes a great deal of empathy with such a heartfelt and genuine delivery. When she pleas "fix all my heartache," you can really feel it, and the point is truly driven home by the sad but unbroken devotion in the chorus. Sun In My Eyes kicks into high gear right away, with a sudden burst of energy reminiscent of the Eagles' Already Gone. Following is String It Out, a wonderfully progressing song that grows in power with such masterful subtlety that it doesn't explode with a burst of emotion but rather sneaks up on you. That, and clever lines such as "like a puppet show, I'm gonna string it out" keep the song from sounding as bleak as the beginning hints it to be.
Next, and perhaps the best song on the record, is Ring Around My Room. All throughout, this track captures My Morning Jacket and early Wilco with a different approach, as if they reversed the values in their indie/country trade-off and threw in a dash of pop for good measure (sheesh, how many times have you read "a dash of (x) thrown in for good measure" in a review). Andrew Gerters' drumming is really what keeps it together here; he manages to keep it as upbeat as it needs to be, without injecting more vigor than is needed.
The first real stumble is Mortified; there are great hooks abound throughout the verses (notably in the vocal department) but it all falls apart in the bland, noisy, and directionless chorus, dropping the pop sensibility a bit too drastically. Falling Away suffers from the exact opposite problem; a soaring chorus without a strong song to back it.
Overall, Days On Their Side is ultimately a grower and not a shower (har har har), and while the first listen will definitely impress, it's in repeated spins that this album shows its musical intricacy and sophistication; in particular the exquisite banjo playing by Kevin Halland, understated to just the right degree without diluting its impact in each song, especially on Second Chance. As for Villalobos herself, in spite of any missteps, she is developing quite rapidly as a songwriter, and alt-country fans unaquainted with this young talent would do well to keep an eye out for her.