Tristen’s 2011 debut, Charlatans at the Garden Gate, defined the Nashville singer-songwriter as an exceptionally feisty presence, adroitly integrating classic country signifiers within a sharp-tongued modern persona. An approach that acknowledged genre history without being overly reverent of it, this method laid the groundwork for a series of smart, lean pop songs with just a palpable bit of twang. Yet it’s that same lack of reverence that leads to problems on Caves. Reflecting a defiant desire to piss off the stodgy Nashville establishment by injecting dance-pop tropes and erasing any traces of traditionalist leanings, this move into new territory ends up crushing the singer’s formerly distinctive songwriting style under uninspired, overbearing production.
It doesn’t help that the lyrics are markedly weaker. There are still strong tracks, like the brazen opener “No One’s Gonna Know,” with its quietly menacing feline purr and syncopated rhythms. But too often the songs suffer from a heavy hand, smothered in canned strings and spurious electronic flourishes. This adds some texture to “Winter Night,” which has a pleasingly theatrical lushness, with its multitracked vocals and icy atmosphere, but too often the production sounds both cheap and drearily familiar. The ingenuity and freshness that defined Tristen’s debut is replaced with more conventional, less personalized background filler, with the acidic wit of Charlatans at the Garden Gate swapped out for a sound more geared toward rote uplift and dreamy introspection, characteristics that leave the album feeling more than a bit soggy.
Songs like “House of War,” “Monster,” and “Forgiveness” retain audible traces of the limber songwriting found on Charlatans at the Garden Gate, but their remaining hints of individual style are dominated by flat, manipulative string sections. Her guitar playing, formerly at the top of the mix, gets manipulated and diminished; too often Caves finds the small-voiced singer dwarfed by her own overwhelming backdrops. Of the different varieties of sophomore slumphood, this at least falls into the more interesting category, an artist overextending herself in an attempt to push things in a new direction. Yet that direction unfortunately points toward the sort of ’80s-inspired synth-pop paradigm that’s already been mined to exhaustion.