Pistol Annies, 'Annie Up' (RCA Nashville)

7
Annie Up
Critical Mass
Release Date: May 7, 2013
Label: RCA Nashville

by Michael Robbins

In 2011, united by a love of raucous twang, slow burn, bad puns, and high-heeled shit-kicking, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley formed Pistol Annies in order to stick it to the man's man's man's world of Nashville's starmaking machinery. That's the mythology, anyway — Lambert was already a country superstar when she and Music Row vets Monroe and Presley decided to pool their sizable talent for this don't-call-it-a-side-project.

The trio's debut, Hell on Heels, was a quick, mean, corny affair, and critics and fans alike ate it up like a deep-fried Twinkie at a county fair. It was somewhat overpraised — a good country record with the aura of a great one. Though it's not exactly Leave Home to its predecessor's RamonesAnnie Up is still a pretty tasty serving of grits and sass. Wry rather than LOL, less cornball than Brad Paisley in stand-up mode, the three pros trade vocals and songwriting cred. They're a band, not a rotating star vehicle. They let their hair down and get their cartoon-outlaw on, Gorillaz-style, working-girl fantasists who remember what it's like to sing along with the radio and dream of making it big.

Things kick off smoky with the finger-snappin' "I Feel a Sin Comin' On," a sultry re-up of Peggy Lee's version of "Fever" that's "gonna leave a lipstick stain." Single "Hush Hush" comes on trad but smuggles in some snappy sin of its own:

So I snuck out behind the red barn And I took myself a toke Since everybody here hates everybody here Hell, I might as well be their joke

"Blues, You're a Buzz Kill" is a pretty, steely affair with a long fuse, the sort of last-call ballad Elizabeth Cook might cover: "You're good at disguising / But I'm good at lying / Right here in some stranger's bed / Hey, blues, you're over my head." Presley, who expertly ripped off John Prine for the debut's lovely "Lemon Drop," donates the backward-thinking, forward-stomping "Loved by a Workin' Man." And "Dear Sobriety" is "The Bottle Let Me Down" for a generation whose vocabulary has been enabled by the jargon of addiction/recovery and self-empowerment.

The lyrics veer from aw-shucks ("Hearts and pickup trucks break down / Tires go flat and boys run 'round") to get-fucked ("Ain't no use in staying sad or pissed-off / You know how them cowboys are"). And if the cleverness quotient isn't quite as high as they think it is, the Annies know from torquing a trope. In "I Hope You're the End of My Story," Paisley's exquisite couplet from 2005's "Out in the Parking Lot" — "Yeah, I love to see the neon dancing on the gravel / And I love to hear the pickup trucks as they come unraveled" — gets a bitter rewrite in the glare of a hangdog morning: "Spinning our wheels just stirs up the gravel." Even the obligatory soggy number, "Trading One Heartbreak for Another" (so coy! just spell it out for us, will ya?), contains a fine turn of phrase: "I'm finally alive, but it's killing who I'm living for."

Which isn't to say the shtick never wears thin. I wish I could unread the PR description of "Being Pretty Ain't Pretty," a song "inspired by a Tweet that Ashley sent that she had just bought a ton of makeup, and makeup wipes to take it all off. 'Women are warriors, and we go into battle every day with the stuff we wear,' said Angaleena."

2013 is already the best year for country in more-than-recent memory. Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer Different Park, the Band Perry's Pioneer, and Ashley Monroe's solo debut, Like a Rose, are three of the year's best records in any genre, and three of the finest country albums we've heard this century. Annie Up isn't quite in their league, but that won't slow it down any.

True, the album's pot-smoking washerwoman, skeptical of her daddy's end-of-days talk, does contribute a few welcome cracks to the socially conservative edifice of mainstream country, as do highlights from Musgraves (I kissed a girl, or at least I don't mind if you did, and let's get high) and Monroe (give me weed instead of roses) on their own platters. But let's not kid ourselves: The joy of these records isn't in their social principles, tame even by mushy liberal standards, if not necessarily by Nashville's. The joy's where it always is, in guitars and smarts and voices raised in celebration of divine gifts: "God gave it to me, what good's it gonna do me if I don't, by God, let it shine?"

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