“It’s hotter than hell, but don’t it make for a sunset” begins Orchid South, the third album by acclaimed Memphis singer-songwriter Chris Milam (“MY-lum”). Introducing a lush, bold rock & roll record full of extremes—the highs and lows of adolescence—Milam sets a stage of looming disaster and irrepressible beauty. This is Milam’s teenage wasteland: it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel everything.
Milam’s first two albums, Kids These Days (2017) and Meanwhile (2020), earned him widespread critical acclaim (“invites—and earns—the Paul Simon comparisons,” raved American Songwriter). Years of dogged, grassroots touring and festival appearances (SXSW, Americanafest) earned him a dedicated fanbase across the US & UK. Collaborations and co-bills with Stax legend William Bell, Valerie June, Amanda Shires, Cory Branan, et al earned Milam’s reputation as an ascendent artist to watch.
Now comes Orchid South, Milam’s third LP. Like his first two, OS was cut at High/Low Recording in Memphis with Milam’s longtime producer Toby Vest. But unlike the electronically-inflected folk of Kids These Days, or the stripped-down Americana of Meanwhile, Orchid South is Milam’s most ambitious project to date: eleven songs in four days, one band, all recording live on the tracking room floor.
Every aspect of Orchid South—from its inception through its production—runs counter to current music industry trends. Here is an old-school, cohesive album in a singles world. A singer-songwriter album of loud, fast rock songs. Live recording in an age of overdubs. And an independent artist writing swing-for-the-fences anthems.
“Thankfully,” laughs Milam, “Memphis knows a thing or two about rock and roll.”
The material attracted an all-star band of Memphis musicians: guitarists Steve Selvidge (The Hold Steady) and Luke White (Spiral Stairs), keys ace Rick Steff (Lucero), horn section Art Edmaiston and Marc Franklin (Al Green, Allman Brothers, Jason Isbell), bassist Mark Edgar Stuart (Alvin Youngblood Hart), and drummer Shawn Zorn (Twin Forks).
Set firmly in its time and place (1990’s Memphis), Orchid South blends 90’s alt-rock, Memphis power pop, three-part harmonies, knockout horn arrangements, and Milam’s vivid storytelling. These eleven portraits of teenage life draw a direct line from the tumult of Milam’s adolescence to the chaos of 2024.
“It’s the album I’ve wanted to make since I picked up a guitar,” Milam says. “It’s about being a teenager, but it’s also written from teenagers’ perspectives. The songs kind of exist on parallel tracks—things I experienced in the past that echo in the present.”
Those experiences run the gamut. Young love and urgency drive “Orchid South,” an opener densely packaged with arena-ready hooks and first-night-of-summer setting. Beauty and transience are explored in the electric “Almost Gone” and breathtaking “Underwater.” Self harm (“Cut Myself Shaving”) and sexual repression (“Out”). Popularity and its strange currencies (“Celebrity Now”). A sweet-turned-obsessive reimagining of “Always on My Mind” (Phantom Planet) paves the way for toxicity-in-training character study “Let Me Love You.” Stream-of-consciousness vignette “Thoughts on Hold,” recalls Milam’s experience on a suicide hotline. Woozy waking nightmare “Bad Dream” serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece. Finally, “Song of the Summer” drops the curtain and flashes forward for a wistful epilogue.
Though a far cry from conventional singer-songwriter fare, Orchid South reflects the depth and breadth of Milam’s songwriting talent. These are Chris Milam’s songs of the summer: bombastic, beautiful, and fleeting.
Orchid South arrives May 10, 2024 on M Records.