In the Middle of the Worst of It: Pistol Annies on fire

Pistol Annies cover art

The Pistol Annies—Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley—have about a hundred different superpowers between them. Truth-telling, trash-talking, myth-making, hell-raising—their virtuosity runs both deep and wide. One thing none of them are great at is sugar-coating, and on Interstate Gospel—their third and most accomplished album—they are proudly, defiantly, even confrontationally unvarnished. “I’m in the middle of the worst of it,” Monroe sings toward the start of the album—and then comes the knife twist: “These are the best years of my life.” The group has always written about women deep in the shit—sometimes dumped upon them, sometimes self-generated—yet even their most desperate protagonists take the shitstorm in stride. Most weather it with their sense of humor intact; some come through it newly self-reflective; more than a handful are aided by booze or pills, and try though you might you can’t blame them. Interstate Gospel may be the most troubled Pistol Annies record yet, stacked with songs about divorce and regret, but this is a band whose jocularity and compassion seem directly proportional to the enmity faced by their characters. In other words, this is also their most rollicking, joyful, and confident album, the one with the funniest jokes, the most sophisticated blend of hazy autobiography and richly-detailed fiction. “We’re on fire, I think,” Lambert muses at one point, and it’s a line with double meaning—both a statement of emergency but also a not-so-humble acknowledgement that the Pistol Annies are on a hot streak.

That streak encompasses at least a half dozen classic albums between them, estimating conservatively; Monroe’s Sparrow, striking for how it finds room for personal expression within an established lineage, came out just a few months ago. It’s masterful in a different way than Lambert’s contemplative The Weight of These Wings or Presley’s razor-edged Wrangled, and one of the chief accomplishments of Interstate Gospel is how it showcases each Annie’s individuality but also the strength in their bond; the specificity of what each Annie does is sharpened, not flattened, by their fellowship. Maybe that’s why they chose to open the album, after a quick prelude, with “Stop, Drop, and Roll One,” a band introduction and theme song. (“One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall, one’s got a drink in her hand,” they summarize, and if you’re not sure who’s who, just listen to when each voice enters the scene.) Presley’s verse on the song showcases the ease and economy with which she can tell a story: “Get this thing off of me, where in the hell is my bra?/ This hurts a lot more than the last time we did Mardi Gras.” Meanwhile, “Leavers Lullaby,” a goodbye letter from a woman born to run, is voiced by Monroe, reflecting a thematic strain that would have fit neatly among Sparrow’s assembly of gypsy hearts and wanderers. “Best Years of My Life” opens with a line that seems like a Monroe special—“I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet”—yet it’s almost more satisfying to imagine the line penned for her by an alternate Annie, the fruit of their sisterly camaraderie and intermingled sensibilities.

As for Lambert, she can’t help but be at the epicenter of what’s nearly a divorce album. Her severed ties with Blake Shelton comprise the most tabloid-worthy breakup among the Annies, and she addressed the matter at length on The Weight of These Wings, a double album where she took stock, admitted fault, and largely found virtue in Being the Bigger Person. Somehow, singing divorce songs under the Pistol Annies banner frees her to chronicle dissolution and its aftermath with an expanded range of emotions, including grief, shame, liberation, and glee. The grief and the shame come primarily in “Masterpiece,” a late-album stunner performed almost as a Lambert solo track, and of a piece with The Weight of These Wings. Here she agonizes over oblivion, anguishing over all the hard work that can go into keeping a marriage afloat just for it to capsize anyway (“like nothing ever happened,” she laments). Considerably perkier is “Got My Name Changed Back,” a courtroom jamboree that turns lemons into lemonade and a divorce settlement into rebirth (“Now who I was ain’t who I be/ I got my name changed back,” Lambert exults). That’s the Interstate Gospel prism, one where it can be easier to see the joy and relief in separation than in sticking it out. There’s no sadder line on the album than the pungent country one-liner Lambert lets loose on “Best Years of My Life,” about a woman who’s stuck: “He don’t love me but he ain’t gone yet.” Meanwhile, each Annie gives voice to wisdom and the healing power of time on “When I was His Wife,” a song of experience if ever there was one. “His love was enough to keep me satisfied/ I said that too when I was his wife,” sings Monroe, another leaver’s confession.

Pistol Annies are uniquely gifted at upholding the Lady Bird doctrine, where paying careful attention is really an act of love. That’s true even when their impish humor and their passion for archetypes veer close to cartoonishness; their empathetic streak is always there to save them. Less caring writers would let “Cheyenne” lapse into cliché, what with its protagonist who loves trashy tattoos and country music. When Lambert hits the longing in the chorus—“If I could treat love like Cheyenne/ If I could be just as cold as the beer in her hand”—it feels like the most nakedly autobiographical sentiment on the whole album. Likewise, the randy “Sugar Daddy” could have been a lark (“My sugar daddy’s got a rhinestone suit/ Got a snake in his boot,” Monroe coos), but it’s noteworthy here for its brazen celebration of feminine agency. Their propensity for empathetic nuance brings unresolvable ache to “Milkman,” which tries to unravel the complicated threads connecting mothers and daughters but ultimately tangles them further; and to “Commissary,” which addresses addiction and enablement by putting the tough in tough love.

Of the three Pistol Annies records, Interstate Gospel sounds the most sure-footed as it straddles country’s past and its present; it prizes both traditionalism and pop punch, and it sounds classicist without fetishizing analog austerity. (This catholic conception of country marks some of the year’s most enthralling albums, including Eric Church’s Desperate Man and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.) Working with producer Frank Liddell, who helmed all of Lambert’s solo joints, the Annies give equal stature to close harmonies and thunderous drums, finger-picked acoustics and fuming electric blues. The title song is an old-timey frenzy, pounding church pianos colliding with rollicking bluegrass. Presley’s biblical dad jokes (“Jesus is the bread of life, without him you’re toast”) split the difference between Grand Old Opry cornpone and Dixie Chicks irreverence. Elsewhere, “Cheyenne” lilts to a folksy fiddle, while “Sugar Daddy” crackles with loose electricity. These arrangements manage to surprise without ever seeming ostentatious: Listen to how “Got My Name Changed Back” ends on an Andrews Sisters high, or to how “5 Acres of Turnips” morphs from sepia-tinged regret into a psychedelic dream sequence.

It’s that song that may be Interstate Gospel’s true lynchpin: In a rural multi-generational epic, the Annies whisper about dark family secrets. (No specific allegations are made, but there’s talk of “generations of shame” and ominous holes in the ground.) But when the lurching honky-tonk blossoms to its coda, Presley sings amazing grace: “Something beautiful comes out of this dirt,” she declares. Just like that, deep shit is redeemed, through good humor, joyful intent, and sheer force of will—proof of the Pistol Annies’ superpowers working at their peak.

Out of the Past: Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow, reviewed

sparrow

If anyone’s going to make a countrypolitan record in 2018, let it be Ashley Monroe—who, as a singer, songwriter, and record-maker, is unparalleled at finding common ground between country traditionalism and country modernism. Maybe it’s a byproduct of her age. At 31, Monroe is much too young to be a first-generation fan of Willie or Loretta, let alone Hank; she makes records that suggest she came by her inclusivity honestly, immersing herself in the hard stuff (Waylon and Merle), the pop stuff (Bobbie Gentry and Glenn Campbell), and the contemporary stuff (Shania and the Dixie Chicks, let’s say) all at once, and has no interest in acknowledging any hierarchies or demarcations therein. Her 2015 album The Blade remains a master class in time travel, a record where bubbly country-pop hooks happily coexist with austere C&W, and Sparrow is a more subtle and sophisticated record still. Working with producer Dave Cobb, Monroe both upholds tradition while reshaping it in her own image, wielding countrypolitan’s brazen, string-laden emotionalism—big, sweeping arrangements made to haul buried feelings to the surface—with therapeutic precision: Her aim is excavation, not pageantry, and she uses the colors of the orchestra to illuminate the contours of the human heart. She’s just the right songwriter to tackle a record like this—one that’s deeply felt but never saccharine or maudlin—and she’s also just the right singer: A veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe can be performative without being showy; she inhabits her characters without chewing the scenery. Her nuance and precision bring these songs everywoman appeal: She convinces us that these stories are he own, but also makes it easy for us to hear ourselves in them.

It’s fortuitous timing that, just as Kacey Musgraves situates country’s pop inclinations within the broader tradition of honky-tonk plainspeak, Monroe resurrects its opulent and theatrical side for an album that’s haunted by trauma, blood inheritance, and loss. The opener, “Orphan,” uses orchestral bombast as emotional ballast, and recalls the pomp and sentiment of a classic Isaac Hayes or Scott Walker arrangement. It turns out to be a little bit of a red herring: Proving early on that they can pull off an old-school weeper, Monroe and Cobb mostly apply a light touch to these 12 songs, using lush orchestrations to rich and varied effect. They bring an expressionistic verve to “Wild Love,” which drips with romantic opulence, as if to mirror the insatiable desire in the lyrics, and they conjure the dusty, widescreen pop of Elton John circa Tumbleweed Connection on songs like “Rita.” “Hands on You” deftly deploys orchestral accents atop its slinky R&B groove, connecting Monroe’s music to country-soul. “Paying Attention” is country music dressed up as chamber folk, subtle string accents recalling albums like Beck’s Sea Change as much as they do Bobbie Gentry’s records. Both direct and multi-layered, Sparrow has the sturdy craft of a classic and a casual eclecticism born of the streaming age; it feels timeless but never retro, born of a particular lineage but never beholden to it.

Monroe wrote these songs (with a murder’s row of co-authors, among them Anderson East) while pregnant with her first child, and on the heels of therapy. She was just a teenager when she lost her father, and her mother flitted in and out of her life, two realities that factor prominently on an album that opens with a song called “Orphan” before moving into “Mother’s Daughter” and eventually “Daddy I Told You.” This is an album concerned with lineage and blood, with how the past shapes us and scars us. And so the great tragedy of “Mother’s Daughter”—a song for lovers, leavers, and drifters—isn’t that the mother is a wandering spirit, but that the daughter fears it’s a family trait. “Orphan” pulls out all the stops, not only with its lush orchestration but with its lyrics, gently touching on country and gospel tropes to convey the feeling of being totally rudderless in a world darkened of guiding lights. (God’s eye is on the sparrow, an old spiritual tells us, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a comforting or an ironic evocation in a song that feels so utterly alone.) Even the Belle de Jour daydream “Hands on You” tangles with the past and its reverberations, idly grasping at a missed opportunity. And on “Hard on a Heart,” Monroe plays the wayfaring stranger, giving her traveling companion a pep talk: “I know there’s no turnin’ back/ The damage is done/ You know all we’ve gotta do, me and you/ We’ve gotta move on.” The twist is that she’s talking into a mirror, and indeed, the key to Sparrow is that it’s not a breakup or heartache record: It’s a reckoning with the self, and a portrait of the artist as the sum of all her tragedies and her triumphs, the battles she’s lost and the scars she’s won, the sins of her parents and her own road to redemption. It ends with “Keys to the Kingdom,” a dream of heaven, where Elvis is singin’ ‘bout Jesus and there’s rest for all the weary sinners. It’s a song that looks forward in hope: Here the singer’s moving out of the past, and she’s on to something good.