Release Date: Aug 23, 2011
Record label: Columbia Nashville
On the debut by their ad hoc trio, Miranda Lambert and friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley show off the kind of hard-living wit and hardscrabble class consciousness that have become tough to find in Nashville. Their feisty brand of country mixes Great Depression redneck blues, rockabilly and even a little '65 Dylan (check the rambling Bringing It All Back Home backbeat in "Takin' Pills") without sounding retro. Though they sometimes opt for woozy beauty, they're best rip-roaring about not making ends meet: deep debt, thrift-store curtains, mufflers tied on with guitar strings, no-good husbands kicked out of the trailer.
Relieving the pressure of delivering her eagerly awaited fourth album, Miranda Lambert formed the Pistol Annies with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, two similarly minded singer/songwriters whose profile doesn’t come close to matching hers. Lambert may be the star, but she’s not the leader in Pistol Annies, who are a remarkably democratic supergroup, sharing leads and writing songs where the spotlight shifts from one singer to another. Often, the group’s spare, simple arrangements, acoustic underpinning, and wry wit recall the Dixie Chicks, but the Pistol Annies' sensibilities are more straightforward than the Chicks; they don’t bend genres or delve into bluegrass, and the focus remains on the song.
Whereas many side projects ultimately amount to little more than artistically inert, self-indulgent one-offs, Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies is true to her reputation of defying expectations. With Hell on Heels, she, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe have made a truly spectacular, smart country album. To give Lambert sole credit for the project’s success, however, would be shortsighted.
While it's true that country music often tells stories, it's also the only genre whose songs tell stories about work. When record companies created the 'alt-country' moniker in the 90s the likes of Uncle Tupelo borrowed accents and dobros to embroider uninhabited, pointless songs; I still don't get why Jeff Tweedy still hoodwinks listeners into thinking he's an expert craftsman. As big as Toby Keith and Tim McGraw are, they still sing convincingly about buying their kids combo meals and letting them pick prizes at Wal-Mart (Keith's 'Can't Buy You Money'), or waking up with bloodshot eyes and an angry wife.
PISTOL ANNIES “Hell on Heels” (Columbia Nashville) You’ve seen the routine by now: artist starts out rough, unwashed and crackling with energy; gets attention and acclaim; cleans up nice and plays well with others; becomes a star and, more important, a celebrity, as known as much for fame as for art; wonders about the life and the attitude left behind; goes back to hang out with the old crew and get back in touch with roots. Usually that arc is the preserve of rappers; now it’s the turf of Miranda Lambert, onetime country rapscallion turned belle of the ball. In the last two years she’s shifted from serrate numbers about bruised women and shotguns toward tender ballads; add in a 2010 C.M.A.
Comeback of the year? Not quite, but this mid-60s countrypolitan hit maker gets a major boost from Marty Stuart as producer/co-songwriter/musician on Smith’s first album in eight years. These broken-hearted love ditties feature her emotional, traditional country voice atop stripped down arrangements that highlight her talents with tunes that are retro yet not musty. Gary Carter’s crying steel guitar will melt the hardest heart and the whole project will give goosebumps to anyone who cherishes the good old days of the Grand Ole Opry.