Tyler Key’s latest effort is the sort of multi-media effort that demands respect from fellow creatives. The core of Wild Azaleas and Other Tall Tales is naturally the album itself; short fiction and other materials shall follow shortly as well. Key seems like a wayward poet of sorts, spinning tales of adventure through recording and pen alike.
“Last Rites” opens the album with a story of a vigilante who carries out justice from his hip. It’s a hefty track at over six minutes, but it never stalls or drags. It’s the story of a man who seeks out vengeance for his daughter in a town where law enforcement refuses to act. He considers the nature of freedom and how it has become distorted and abused. It definitely sets the tone for Key’s ability to craft compelling narratives.
Musically, it’s a bit of a cymbal-heavy brand of alt-country laden with soft guitar and piano. It’s not a true ballad of sorts, but it’s not a rocker like some of the songs that follow.
This feels like an apt segue into “Eyes on the Prize”, a full-on electric experience. Drums are punchy, guitar is crisp, and bass adds a nice roar underneath it all. Key’s voice is naturally Southern, and there’s no fake accent or exaggeration at play here. The texture is neither too rural nor too commercial. That’s not saying anything about the production, though – everything is clear and professional. The mixing really shines on this track, where many layers compete for attention but never feel too busy.
Of course, things would be complete without a fair bit of slide guitar. Enter “Wild Azaleas”, a sultry jam full of ornamental riffs. Beyond the slide guitar, there’s plenty of piano and even a bit of saxophone thrown in for good measure. The lyrical imagery is that of mid-century war and young love in a time of uncertainty. Key recounts references faster than you can count, and at nearly six minutes long, there’s a lot of story to witness here.
“69 Chevelle” opts for beachy, reverb-drenched guitar. Key again lays out some powerful quips over a classic rock instrumental base. It’s not hard to imagine being a vintage diner with carhops on roller skates. There’s a neon glow underneath that suits the reference to classic cars and fond memories.
“Spice of Life” is full of adept wordplay paired with a sound that would potentially work in a movie like “Grease”. “When you said that I was fishing for some compliments, I was really only reaching for the condiments. Labeled with language I could barely pronounce, I try too hard when everybody’s around,” Key recounts, regarding what I assume is a bottle of Sriracha. The main downside to the song is its brevity, spanning just over two minutes. Paired with some of its longer counterparts, things even out a bit and it becomes apparent Key is not bound to any particular definitions of song length. Some stories are simply longer than others.
One of the album’s biggest anthems is undeniably “Long Run The Fugitives”, a pseudo-outlaw journey through rock of old. Key weaves social commentary on wealth distribution and the struggles of the working class into his lyrical narrative, but these sentiments are buoyant atop a bed of gritty guitars and tight drumming. This is bound to be a favorite for fans of southern rock.
In many respects, “The Old Hotel” feels like a second half to “Eyes on the Prize’, with a similar drum pattern and minor nod from the guitars. That’s certainly not a bad thing by any stretch, and the energy of the song is some of the highest of the record. Key belts out the chorus with sheer passion. Saxophone once again makes an appearance over the midpoint guitar solo. This is the longest of the tracks, topping seven minutes. The latter half is primarily explosive instrumental jam session, with a few final words before closing out.
In case you were wondering if there was a coherent narrative underneath the wealth of stories on the album, the narrator’s remark that “[his mother] keeps those tired eyes on the prize and she’ll get her wings to fly” certainly cements some degree that there’s some overlap between the people and tales of the tracks. “Wings” describes a blue collar woman – one who has worked the same job her whole life – and the ins and outs of her life through the lens of her relationship with her family. The album ends softly and simply as the story itself.
Ultimately, Key has crafted a pretty decent variety of tracks that play to the nostalgia of classic rock, Southern tradition, alt-country, and beyond. This is a lyric-heavy album, but it’s never incomprehensible – and any sort of socio-political ideation is married seamlessly with what feels like an organic narrative. Key’s writing is never too philosophical or abstract; he instead opts for stories that, if not real, at least feel real. They feel innocent. Even the man shooting out tires seems to demand empathy from the listener, as he surely isn’t getting much from the world around him.
This isn’t a flawless record – there are a few tracks I didn’t spend much time diving into solely because there wasn’t too much that stood out to me. Admittedly, most of these were the quieter, simpler tracks (one of which is the other single, “Lemonade”). That’s not to say these tracks are bad or that you won’t like them, but they form a weird pocket in the middle of the album that feels a bit stagnant in some respects.
That aside, Wild Azaleas and Other Tall Tales could certainly be the perfect gateway album into the world of Southern rock or independent country. The songs here are balanced and compositionally-diverse. The lyrics are neither inane nor play to any stereotypes. The mix is incredible and captures the dynamic of the band. It’s professional, intelligent, well-written, even humorous at times. Key shows us that variety really is the spice of life.