Midnight Highway review by Quinn Sullivan

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  • Released: Jan 27, 2017
  • Sound: 6
  • Lyrics: 6
  • Overall Impression: 6
  • Reviewer's score: 6 Neat
  • Users' score: 1 (1 vote)
Quinn Sullivan: Midnight Highway
3

Sound — 6
Here's the problem with reviewing any album by a child prodigy: You always want to be completely fair to the artist in question as they're quite young, and young talent is usually something pretty awesome to behold. But at the same time, you know that there's usually a mass-marketing machine behind it, a sense that the artist in question is really not too sure about themselves yet. It's quite an awkward time in a person's life to be working on a music career, and it's incredibly rare that any work by a child prodigy is actually good.

17-year-old Quinn Sullivan is a Strat-wrangling bluesy rocker in the vein of many a so-called "white boy blues" artist from the '70s to the '90s, evoking some of the big names out there like Jeff Healey, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and some of the shades of the poppier elements of the genre such as John Mayer. Now, we can debate the authenticity of artists in this style for days (perhaps SRV is the only one to completely avoid any criticism that I can tell), especially when you take the age of the artist in review today into question. Choosing not to focus on whether this is an "authentic" blues album or not is probably for the best, because digging into the album, it's quite clear that the young Mr. Sullivan is quite a talented guitar player.

Every song is positively bursting with bluesy licks, with many little cheeky guitar solos peppered throughout the album. Opening track "Something For Me" sees a storytelling style of blues rock with the vintage-sounding vocal and slide guitar drone, and a kind of dirty southern blues-rock feel to it. Hell, the kid even says "way down in Memphis" in the lyrics, so you know he means blues business (I honestly wish sarcasm translated better in text...). It's not a bad track by any means, and Quinn is absolutely adept at the style. But thankfully, by the second track, the music style shifts a little to match the expectation set by someone Quinn's age. And it's actually tracks like "Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming" that I prefer on this album: the more pop/rock influenced, "younger"-sounding tracks. It's on tracks like this that Quinn sounds a bit more natural, a bit less contrived, while still letting his talent shine. The title track follows, and it's a bit more laid-back, while still retaining that sort of blues/country/pop-rock sound. "Crazy Into You" is a bit more of a guitar-centered pop-rocker, another one of those tracks where the youth of Quinn's singing voice and songwriting style really match up better.

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Acoustic guitars carry the ballad "Eyes For You," which features some nice vocal harmonies, but also some of that annoying melismatic pop vocal sound that I find too be all-too-pervasive in mainstream music nowadays (and there's definitely a huge amount of pitch-correction of the vocals that makes itself painfully obvious near the end of the song). "Lifting Off" gives us a dose of funky pop-rock guitar and a pretty swanky synth part, but even more of that really, really annoying auto-tune, and is one of the few songs not to feature any particular guitar solo parts. It's kind of reminiscent of some of the recent Daft Punk stuff, but without half the professionalism and mystique of that group. "She Gets Me" is another acoustic ballad, and returns us to a bit more of an authentic blues-rock sound, with a couple of really excellent guitar solos, but just sounds too bland overall as a song. "Rocks"... well, it rocks! At least, that seems to be the intent, with its more distorted guitar parts, and is a pretty nice track, but nothing really all that inspiring. "Going" is another sort of acoustic ballad with the return of the dreaded auto-tune (it really makes me wonder how good of a singer this kid really is if they let the auto-tune make itself so obvious throughout the album). "Graveyard Stone" is more kind of alright but uninspired pop-rock.

"Big Sky" might be one of the nicest tracks on this album, a piano and guitar instrumental, which is kind of ambient, reminiscent of post-Waters era Pink Floyd, and spends much of its time played rubato. There's no shredding going on here, but lacking Quinn's voice, it's really the only track that lets you kind of appreciate his guitar talent without having to wade through the rather bland, though often pleasant and safe, songwriting in the rest of the songs. And his guitar tone on this track is absolutely sublime (not that it's bad on the other songs, but here it's much easier to appreciate). The first of the album's last two tracks is a completely faithful cover of The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which is a pretty decent cover, but it is kind of weird to hear a blues-rock guitarist actually play a cover as faithfully to the original as he does here, instead of taking it and making it his own. And the auto-tune on his voice remains as prevalent as ever. Album closer "Buffalo Nickel" is the album's longest track, at just over eight minutes long, and like "Big Sky," is an instrumental, this one more of a bluesy rock jam. It actually closes the album out on a very nice note, again showcasing Quinn's guitar talents without the bland songwriting and awkward auto-tune that permeates this album.

Recorded in Nashville at Blackbird Studios, Quinn utilizes the talents of many great session players, including co-guitarist Rob McNelley, bassists Michael Rhodes and Tom Macdonald, and keyboardist Reese Wynans. Many of these musicians have performed with Buddy Guy, and Quinn himself has performed on stage with Guy as well as blues legend B.B. King. There's no denying the pedigree of the musicians involved, and given the style of music, their performances are great, and the production and mixing are top-notch.

Lyrics — 6
Let's face it, this is where any young artist really fails to captivate me. A 17-year-old guitar prodigy who's appeared on numerous daytime talk shows as young as six years old, studied with some absolutely great professional musicians, and had the opportunity to perform with some of the most respected musicians in the world by an age where most of us reading the reviews were still struggling to understand the concept of addition and subtraction, and on his third studio album by an age where many of us haven't even left our parents' houses yet... has no reason to sing the blues. Life's been particularly kind to this young gentleman, and the lyrics on this album reflect that, from the opening track "Something for You" speaking more of the discovery of the blues while playing up as many different stereotypes (such as the aforementioned "way down in Memphis" line) as possible. Generally, throughout the album, the lyrics are more sort of immature "puppy love" kinds of songs, definitely appropriate for a pop singer of his age, and while they're not deep or really all that inventive, they work with the music well enough.

The real issue with this album I have is Quinn's vocals. While the songwriting is kind of bland, there's still enough going on instrumentally to keep even the most skeptical interested. But the vocals... the only times his vocal style really works on this album are on the upbeat, "youthful" sounding pop-rockers like "Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming" and more laid-back rockers like the title track. But throughout the album there are a lot of older-sounding bluesy rockers and country-inflected tunes where his youthful voice, coupled with the overuse of auto-tune, just doesn't work with the music. The album's acoustic ballads make his use of auto-tune even more obvious. Listening to live videos, it's clear that he's not a very bad singer at all, making you wonder why he needed it at all to begin with. I feel like not using any pitch-correction would have been the right choice to make on his vocals.

Overall Impression — 6
This album is kind of a mixed bag, to be perfectly honest. There are some really good aspects of it, like Quinn's guitar playing, the fact that the songwriting, while bland and safe, can actually be kind of nice sometimes, and it's a (mostly) quite well-produced album. If you are looking for a young guitarist who might turn some heads if he decides to go down a bit more of a mature musical path along the lines of someone like John Mayer, who is spending a lot more time these days channeling his bluesy sound rather than pop-rock, then Quinn might be one of the better guitar players to follow. Compared to his two previous albums, which were a bit heavier on the blues aspect, this album seems to have shifted to a bit more of a youthful pop aesthetic, which works for him for now, while he's still young, but it's clear that this is a young blues guitarist at a crossroads where his music career could go one of two ways: the aforementioned grown-up blues path which may not gather him as many fans, but will earn him a lot of respect from his peers... or a full shift into pop-rock with some of the music industry's best songwriters, because his style here is one that could sell millions of records if the marketing machine positions him just right.

On the other hand, there are also some things that are wrong with this album. Even if the bland songwriting can be nice sometimes, it is still kind of tired and uninspired. The use of auto-tune at many points on this album is a complete put-off for me. There isn't really a lot of musical balance on the album, and it seems to meander all over the place, without ever really settling on something that works. And Quinn's vocals just do nothing for me, leading me to prefer the album's two instrumental tracks (and to be fair, they're really good tracks).

Overall though, it's an alright album. It does have some appealing moments and if I had to single out any tracks as being above average on this album, "Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming," the title track, and the instrumentals "Big Sky" and "Buffalo Nickel" are the ones I'd recommend checking out. The rest of the album is kind of plodding and average, even a little below average, but it's not completely offensive music, and like I made clear in my review for the recent album by The xx, this is perhaps a review which is more of a personal opinion piece where it's better if you make your own judgement. Otherwise, I can't really give this record a very solid recommendation.

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3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    HugoPan
    he's still young, but these songs didn't impressed me anyway. i think he'll develop into a Joe Bonamassa or Gary Moore as soon as he gets older and goes deeper in the blues. that's when his true talend will merge, or not. only time will tell.
    Silverpack
    Writing a good blues tune is harder than what people think. You can quickly end up sounding too casual/generic, or forced, and the grey area between these too extremes is usually very subtle for young players, regardless of their abilities. Being able to "shred" à la SRV is hardly going to solve the problem. Quinn definitely got the chops for the job, but as you said, he still lacks the maturity for now. And it seems he's currently undecided about the musical direction he'll be going for - these pop tracks on the record, though not to everyone's taste, actually sound pretty genuine. Maybe he didn't even need a marketing guy to push him towards that kind of stuff. Congrats on your well-written review !
    travislausch
    Thanks! And yeah, as critical as I am of this album at times, the pop songs really were the best ones. I really hope that he keeps going, though, because it'll be interesting to see what direction he takes musically.