May 24, 2019
By Megan Bledsoe
Unsatisfied with the glamor of all the larger studios he had investigated, singer-songwriter Frankie Lee went home to Stillwater, Minnesota, and made a record of the same name. And just like its name might suggest, Stillwater is a mellow, easy listen, simple and laidback like Lee's hometown and so many other small towns across America and the world.
This album is simple, yes, but far from sparse or minimalistic. This is largely due to the richness and detail in instrumentation which serves to give variety to a mostly mid-tempo record. Upright piano features heavily on Stillwater, adding color to tracks like "Only She Knows" and providing the backdrop for the closer, "Ventura." There's lively harmonica on "Broken Arrow" and "Blinds," and a healthy amount of steel guitar sprinkled all over the album to add a more country flavor to what is an otherwise folk/Americana affair. And the flute comes out of nowhere in the opening track, "Speakeasy," to make this one of the most interesting moments on the whole thing. It might seem like a strange component in a country or Americana song, but it fits perfectly here and makes me want to hear more artists try to incorporate it into their songs. A little more variety in tempo could have helped this record go from nice and pleasant to really great, but these arrangements make up for that pretty well.
If you only pick one track to listen to from this album, make it "Downtown Lights" or "Blinds." The former was the first song released from the album and is said to be inspired by the commercialization of Stillwater and other small towns like it, as little towns lose their identities in favor of tourism and commerce. The latter is just one of those songs where the melody, the instrumentation, and the lyrics come together to form a really special musical moment.
This record isn't going to be for everyone because of its mellow, gentle nature. Some will find it sleepy, and it's indeed a mood record, for a lazy Sunday afternoon. It's a project which will inherently sound better in October than in May. This is an album for those who appreciate quieter, introspective moments, and for the right audience, it's a comfortable listen with a lot to enjoy.
Megan Bledsoe is a proud Oklahoman who has been immersed in music most of her life, from writing it to performing it to just appreciating the power of a good song. She is the founder and editor of countryexclusive.com, where she has been writing about great music since 2015.