Posts Tagged ‘Angaleena Presley’

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson - The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell - Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin - American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies - Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin - Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

May 29, 2013

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Annie Up

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One of the most satisfying surprises of 2011 was Miranda Lambert’s come-from-nowhere trio Pistol Annies. Their airtight harmonies and brutally honest lyrics took a unique spin on mainstream country music. Hell On Heels was an incredible album – ten expertly crafted slices of the hillbilly lifestyle.

The time they’ve spent together over the past two years has made Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe more of a cohesive unit than three solo singers thrown together in collaboration. And the songs cover a wider array of topics than no good men, thus making Annie Up far more well rounded than its predecessor, a fact that couldn’t make me happier.

Like Hell On Heels they wrote the entire record themselves, and as three of the best singer-songwriters in the business, they deliver the goods. There’s no country shuffle of “Bad Example” or seething angst of “Takin’ Pills,” but they make up for it with a surprising amount of subtly and grace that elevates the band to the next dimension.

The quieter moments are the album’s strongest, and Monroe takes the lead on two that take equally compelling but albeit vastly different looks at relationships. “Dear Sobriety” (easily the best track here) is a stunning look at the limits of willpower in face of genetic addiction while “I Hope you’re the End of My Story” finds the band in perfect harmony, hoping a current love is meant to last for life. They continue in this mode, taking on the beauty industry with pitch-perfect candor on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” while “Blues, You’re A Buzz Kill” finds Monroe doing all she can (with no avail) to ward off emotional pain.

“Damn Thing,” their somewhat modernized approach to Ricky Skaggs’ classic 80s country/bluegrass fusion is the opposite of “Blues,” finding the Annies brushing off the things they can’t worry about. They’re also effective on “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina,” a mid-tempo honky-tonker about a woman who needs to let go of an ex once and for all. I also liked “Loved, By A Workin’ Man,” a Presley solo composition where she spills her guts about her kind of guy, and the slower burner “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” is the perfect showcase for how well they play off each other.

This is where my praise hits the proverbial brick wall. Pure and simple – Annie Up showcases everything that’s hazardous about mainstream country music. The more I listen the more pissed off I get at the producers (Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainley, Glen Wolf) and their dim-witted production values.

I totally understand the need to appeal to a younger audience (i.e. where the money is) that is eating up the amped up rock of Jason Aldean and company, but to BLATANTLY erase any hint of fiddle and steel guitar is simply unforgiveable. How the hell do you not drench a number like “Dear Sobriety” in mournful steel? Those idiotic chimes don’t cut it at all. “Loved, By A Workin’ Man” practically begs for some fiddle in place of that annoying electric guitar heard throughout. And I quite enjoyed “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” until that wall of sound comes in at the end engulfing the track in nothing more than noise.

When a band is going to this great a length to actually be country (you can hear it in the vocal performances and in the only use of audible steel on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”) than they should be rewarded with the hallmark instruments of country music backing them up. I know the times have changed but this is inexcusable. Have we actually “evolved” to the point where the elements that differentiate country from other genres of music doesn’t matter let alone need to be present to call a record country? (I know, I know – this has been happening forever. But Annie Up is a real country record or at least as close to one lacking in down home instrumentation can be).

All involved have royally screwed up. And sadly, each and every one knows better. The songs, vocals, and originality are here in spades. It’s a “damn shame” the production didn’t follow suit.

Concert Review – Miranda Lambert & Pistol Annies at the Bank of America Pavilion

July 29, 2012

Miranda Lambert does whatever she wants.

That much is evident from this second leg of her On Fire tour, which rolled into Boston Friday night (July 27) during a week that saw Lambert perform on Good Morning America and co-host The View.

I’ve been following Lambert’s career for nine years now, ever since she first stepped on the Nashville Star stage in 2003. Her “Greyhound Bound For Nowhere” original song night performance solidified my adoration and I knew, if given the chance, she could be the top female singer in country music.

It was a slow climb, but she made it, even when I had doubts country radio would ever stop giving her a cold shoulder. And judging by the enthusiastic crowd at the show, it seems I’m not the only one to ride on the Miranda train.

The show kicked off with Loretta Lynn speaking via tape, telling the crowd her stance that country music will always be okay as long as Lambert’s around, followed by a fabulous montage of strong women set to Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls).”

Lambert then came out with guns blazing on “Fastest Girl In Town,” which set the tone for the night. Rockers of all shapes and sizes followed as she rolled through “Kerosene” and her charging cover of John Prine’s “That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round.” She then slowed down long enough to perfectly execute “Over You,” which came sans any backstory before revving up again on “Heart Like Mine.”

A fascination for Lady Gaga drove her first interaction with the crowd, and led into a countryfied cover of Gaga’s hit “You and I.” Lambert did an incredible job with the song, as country as any hit last year, and she had enough spunk in her delivery to pull it off.

Probably the most palpable display of Lambert’s angst came with “Baggage Claim,” which she sang in tribute to the end of a long work week. The song came complete with rolling flight tickers on the video wall and roused the audience, who dug into the Beyonce-like groove of the tune.

One of the night’s more bizarre moments came when launching into her all but forgotten “Dead Flowers,” a treat for me (I love the song) but a let down for the audience as the artsy metaphors never really connected with mainstream country fans. Choosing to include it within the set further exemplifies Lambert’s rebel spirit, as most singers would never again touch a single that failed to reach the top 30. But the energy of the song works really well, even if the lyrical content doesn’t quite connect.

Lambert took her first of two breaks half way through the set as stage handlers brought three microphone stands (complete with oval shaped named tags and retro microphones) on the stage. The audience was then greeted to a short video piece on the Pistol Annies, before the trio emerged with “Hell On Heels.”

I was surprised to see the crowd go bonkers for them as their lack of airplay and indie spirit should’ve been a deterrent. The short set was followed by the fabulous “Bad Example” and a cover of Lynn’s “Fist City.” The Lynn cover was obvious, but proved a let down as Angaleena Presley’s thin vocals kept the song from translating to this overtly mainstream crowd. But they came back strong, finishing with the fan favorite, “Takin’ Pills.”

There’s a sense with the Pistol Annies that even fourteen months after their formal debut, they still have to explain themselves and defend their coupling. The gimmicky “Holler, Lone Star, and Hippie Annie” schtick is getting a little old. If they just let the music lead the way, they’d be fine.

But with that aside, they put on a great show. Given their backgrounds and passion for traditional country music, they almost beg to play club shows of their own – something I’d die to see. Presley didn’t shine as bright on the big stage with her voice, but she made up for it with an adorable country charm and square dancing bits that had Lambert declaring “now that’s country!” all the while warming her way into my heart. Ashley Monroe is fabulous in much the same way, but as an adept vocal stylist, she shines brightest for the three of them.

The Pistol Annies set was followed by a detour into straight-up rock and roll, which didn’t sound much different from Lambert’s own material. That may prove a problem for those who want Lambert to stay in her “country lane,” but the energy works well backed with her twangy vocals, and she benefits from avoiding the country hick status made famous by her male counterparts.

That energy drives her cover of Kacey Musgraves’ “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a song begging for release as a single. Lambert followed up with “Famous In A Small Town,” “White Liar,” and “Gunpowder and Lead.”

Lambert referenced her stint co-hosting The View one just one occasion, talking about being in New York City among all the models (and View guest Jessica Alba). This short diversion about diversity transitioned nicely into her song “All Kinds of Kinds.”

The emotional highlight of the evening came through “The House That Built Me,” her signature song. She backed it with personal family photos and images from her childhood that brought new meaning to the lyrics. But it also proved how adapt she is at taking a complete 360 and turning out a vulnerable ballad. Like her fabulous ACM performance from 2009, she just stood there, sang, and delivered.

Lambert closed the set with one encore song, a back-to-my-roots cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Backed solely by an acoustic guitar, she turned in the night’s standout vocal and brought a perfect amount of class to the song. But it also felt a bit contrived. Of all the Patsy Cline songs, you cover “Crazy?” Talk about going with the only song of Cline’s the audience would know. It’s too bad as she should’ve shown imagination by going with “Faded Love” or “Leavin’ On Your Mind.”

Of course it doesn’t excuse the fact covering Cline is a crucifixion to the trailblazers of the genre, following the recent death of Kitty Wells. When the woman who made it possible for you to even stand on the Pavilion stage and call yourself a country singer dies, you pay respects with 1) a mention of her name and 2) a performance of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

But through and through, Lambert does whatever she pleases, no matter who it may piss off. She’s built her career on bucking convention and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. If this performance is any indication, she’ll be a female country leader for many years to come.

The same may also be true for her opening act J.T. Hodges (country’s version of Matt Nathanson), who warmed up the crowd with a gumption rarely seen from newer performers. During his set he rolled through many songs from his self-titled debut, due out Aug 21, including highlights “Leaving Me Later” and “Green Eyes Red Sunglasses.”

He threw in a cover of Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo” for good measure and got the crowd pumping on his infectious debut single “Hunt You Down,” my second favorite single of last year. And even though most of his set was loud, he kept it memorable solely with his attitude.

Hodges knew his mission to wake up the crowd and stopped at nothing to do so. Not only did he mention his admiration for  our “title town” (sports), he also ran through the audience to make sure he got everyone’s attention. He won me over as a fan, I can tell you that.

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Hell On Heels’

August 31, 2011

Pistol Annies

Hell On Heels

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Much has been made lately about the lack of solo female artists charting top 30 singles. An alarm was sounded bringing attention to just how few genuine female superstars are working in the genre today. But instead of focusing on the lack of female artists charting big singles, we should be talking about and putting the spotlight on those female artists (solo or not) who are making music that matters whether they receive airplay or are left in the dust.

One of those artists commanding attention is Miranda Lambert’s new trio The Pistol Annies. Their debut album Hell on Heels is without a doubt one of the best country albums of 2011 because the attention to detail in the lyrical content rivals anything being released on a major label in Nashville today. Throughout the ten-song project, intricate phrases abound elevating simple stories into pieces of art. Hell On Heels is a listening experience like none other you’ll have all year.

They debuted with the title track earlier this year, an introduction as good as any. I have a little trouble with its three artist structure, but the verse sung solo by Ashley Monroe always brings fourth a smile. She’s just delightful and one of the best-kept secrets in Nashville today. But the rest of the album is as good but much better than that song.

Not since Mary Chapin Carpenter released “House of Cards” as the third single from Stones in the Road in 1995, has anyone spoken so honestly and introspectively about life behind closed doors. They’ve stood up and given voice to the women who can’t take it anymore from the men who haven’t got a clue.

No song exemplifies this better than “Housewives Prayer,” which employs a simple yet dark lyric to convey the pain of quiet desperation. One of the best songs of the year, it’s a cautionary tale from a woman fed up with the status of her life – she’s been thinking about going off the deep end because she’s “burning up with all the words she ain’t been saying,” and at her boiling point, she washes pills down with beer and contemplates setting her house on fire.

Inspired by “Holler Annie” Angaleena Presley’s divorce, “Prayer” proves the point that you don’t need much to pack a wallop. Presley’s lead vocal acts as a portal for the audience to feel her pain and the moody musical accompaniment, complete with haunting steel guitar front and center, adds another dimension to her sadness.

“Lemon Drop,” another down on your life song, uses a clever metaphor to sell its central message – you have to endure the bad to get to the good. Using examples of curtains purchased on credit and owning a TV that will take ten years to pay off, it serves as a reminder to anyone going through tough times to remember “they’ll be better days ahead.”

The light mix of acoustic guitars and gentle procession coupled with the blending of their voices, gives the song a rather sweet quality, which contrasts with the placement of a lemon in the title, but suggests the optimism the protagonist is holding onto. You come away feeling her situation isn’t a reflection on her because no matter how dire the circumstances may be, she isn’t letting them define her.

When listening to the song, I had to actually stop and think what “life is like a lemon drop” meant. When was the last time that happened? It’s so rewarding not to be able to take lyrics at face value, where you already know what the song’s about because the lyrics are so predictable. This is one of those times I actually like having to work at fully understanding my country music.

“Beige,” another track that made me think, is by and large my favorite song on the whole album. The movie-like nature of the story won me over first, but it was the presentation of that story that blew me away. The song finds a woman on her wedding day, with child, “marrying some boy” in a wrinkled shirt. She’s praying no one will notice her weight gain since a “bride shouldn’t be
4 months and 3 weeks.” She’s wearing beige because “everyone in this place knows I didn’t wait.” The situation is unfortunate and the song contains some of my favorite lines on the whole album, from her being daddy’s pride and joy to no one “having a ball at the reception hall.”

“Hippie Annie” Monroe takes the lead and displays how much she’s grown as a vocalist since Satisfied, her solo debut from 2006. But the song suffers only slightly from a lack of polish. There is a few times where Monroe could’ve enunciated more clearly. But other than that, the track dabbles with perfection. The drumbeat and steel guitar add a layer to the song conveying the sadness felt by everyone on what should’ve been a happy occasion.

But with all the heaviness of the ballads, the Annies add a few lighter moments to lesson the load. “Bad Example” is a pure country shuffle that recalls something from the 1920s, “Takin’ Pills” recalls the depression-era production T-Bone Burnett used on his Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, and “Family Feud” is pure Americana bliss. But being lighter doesn’t cancel out their substantive qualities. “Feud” is takes on a serious topic that often tears families apart, while “Pills” uses drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes as coping mechanisms. But for all their seriousness, they are the best examples of dark humor I’ve heard in country songs since I can remember.

Another light moment, “The Hunter’s Wife,” reminds me a lot of Rodney Crowell’s “She’s Crazy For Leavin’” in terms of production. I love the wordiness of the chorus and the fact that this man doesn’t even realize he’s chosen hunting (and fishing) over his wife. The way she complains about the meals she’s sick of eating in the second verse is so instantly relatable. It’s hard to find a woman who isn’t tired of the redundant behaviors of their husband or boyfriend. If this were a Brad Paisley song, she’d know exactly what to do – give him an ultimatum and if she doesn’t care for his answer, get the heck out. Overall, it’s one of the coolest songs on the whole album and another highlight among highlights.

“Lone Star Annie” Lambert takes the lead on both “Trailer for Rent” and “Boys From The South.” Both represent classic Lambert, on “Rent” she’s selling the trailer she shared with her now ex and it bares the marks of where she grew tired of his abusive behavior. I only wish “Rent” hadn’t gone into expletive territory. It didn’t need a swear word to emphasize anything, but it is indicative of how most people talk and adds an authenticity to the song in that respect. I also like the easygoing nature of the production track.

“Boys From The South” on the other hand, is the lone oddball out on the project. It’s so straightforward and has so much commercial potential; it would’ve been better on Lambert’s upcoming Four The Record or even Revolution. But if any song on this album has the ability to break through at radio and give Hell On Heels an extra push, it’s this one. These are the types of songs Lambert does exceptionally well and she excels on that here.

In the end, Hell on Heels is everything a country album should be: original in its angles on well-worn themes and a challenge to the listener to think and pay attention to what’s being said. This brand of country isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but there’s an audience out there starving for this kind of music. I know because I’m a vocal member of that crowd, retaliating against the usual fare coming out of mainstream Nashville. Thank goodness for artists like Pistol Annies who transcend trend and make music that will matter as much thirty years from now as it does today.


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