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SPIN Essentials

Review: Ashley Monroe, ‘Like a Rose’

Ashley Monroe (left) and Kacey Musgraves (right)
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: March 05, 2013
Label: Warner Music Nashville

Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves are both Tom Petty fans, and they both covered ’30s cowgirl queen Patsy Montana when they were kids (Monroe in a talent contest she won at 11; Musgraves on a CD Baby release at 13), though Musgraves was also the 2002 Patsy Montana National Yodeling Champion and covered Hannah Montana’s best song, “See You Again,” on a compilation EP this year. (Could French Montana be next?) Monroe and Musgraves are now 26 and 24, respectively, a bit younger than Loretta Lynn when she first hit in the ’60s, a bit older than Bobbie Gentry when she did. Like Lynn and Gentry, they are also creative writers — on their excellent new albums out this month, both of which you can sort of call debuts if you have asterisks handy, they both get co-writing credits on every song. They’ve both written with Miranda Lambert, Trent Dabbs, and Shane McAnally. They both sing about smoking (tobacco and marijuana), more than their doctors might advise, though only Monroe devotes a song specifically to the latter, “Weed Instead of Roses,” which additionally advocates whips, whipped cream, and heavy metal as marital aids.

Addiction figures on both albums, too: gambling and cigarettes in Musgraves’ stomping “Blowin’ Smoke” (one of the best songs about obsessive-compulsive Vegas behavior since Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”), unnamed substances and/or unhealthy co-dependency in Monroe’s stormy “You Got Me.” When Monroe’s room starts “spinnin’ round faster and faster” before her hangover in “Morning After,” and when the broken small-town hamster-wheel carousel metaphor of Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” spins us round and round “and where it stops nobody knows and it ain’t slowin’ down,” their dizzy concentric circles both channel the windmills of Dusty Springfield’s mind. So even beyond a stark confessionalism that may prove either too pop or not pop enough for country radio, these two young women have more than a few things in common.

To country radio’s credit, it did play “Merry Go ‘Round” last year. It peaked at no. 14 in the format, even though Musgraves’ defeated Groundhog Day depiction of boondocks life — “just like dust we settle in this town,” “tiny little boxes in a row, ain’t what you want, it’s what you know” — revealed grim truths that Nashville has long preferred to cover up with rural-chauvinist malarkey about not needing to lock doors at night and more-country-than-thou cataloging of fishing lures. To what extent it reflects the life Musgraves knew growing up the child of a couple who ran an independent print shop in a 600-population East Texas town proud of its Sweet Potato Festival is anybody’s guess, but the song was as spot-on as any single released by anyone in 2012, and it’s tempting to quote the whole thing: Mom hooked on Mary Kay, bro on Mary Jane, dad on Mary two doors down (more addiction!); “same checks we’re always cashin’ to buy a little more distraction” (yet more addiction — late capitalism division!); Mother Goose rhymes going to seed. And there are people who like Musgraves’ “Undermine,” made famous by Hayden Panettiere on the TV show Nashville, even more — maybe because “analyzin’ everything that ain’t worth thinkin’ about” is what we folks who think about such things do.

A line in “Merry Go ‘Round” provides Same Trailer Different Park‘s title, though “My House” actually has more trailer talk, extending a cordial motor-home invitation like Dionne Warwick’s “Hasbrook Heights” for a time of vastly diminished suburban expectations. Musgraves’ YouTube-able “Trailer Song” didn’t make the cut, though a couple of its passably paranoid themes did: snooping neighbors not minding their own beeswax (“Don’t wreck my reputation, let me wreck my own”) and a recurring defensiveness about skipping church, which is overshadowed in the very sweet if slightly precious sisterly advice song “Follow Your Arrow” by a zesty and perhaps zeitgeisty cheerleader chorus that goes, “Make lots of noise! / Kiss lots of boys! / Kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into!” You can quibble that Musgraves never stipulates that the last line is still directed at girls (though the later “love who you love” is a hint), or that Katy Perry got there forever ago (though Kacey’s not Girls Gone Wild-ing), or that she even slips in a “you only live once,” jeez (though not till the end.) But for mainstream country, this is up there with Republicans filing an amicus brief advocating gay marriage.

There’s a song called “It Is What It Is” at album’s end, too — Musgraves loves those catchphrases you’re sick of, though at least she didn’t go for “It’s Complicated,” which is what it’s about, though the moment when she resigns herself to settling for a mediocre partner for the time being might break Lena Dunham’s heart. Throughout, she opts for sad prettiness more than rocking out — only “Blowin’ Smoke” and “Stupid” qualify as the latter — and she’s not immune to the little-girl-voiced restraint and nonchalance of ’90s college rock. But she’s got a superb knack for melodies, even if it means swiping them from Radiohead (“I Miss You” is a blatant “Creep” rip, probably another country first) and maybe Jimmy Eat World (“Silver Lining”). “Dandelion” is so gorgeous that anything other than teenage notebook poetry would wreck its mood.

The fuller-drawling Ashley Monroe, by contrast, seems to have gotten most of (if thankfully not all) the moroseness out of her system with Satisfied, the debut album Sony was slated to release way back in 2006, then didn’t. Review promos went out and everything, then three years later the record sneaked onto digital services. It was serious stuff: Dwight Yoakam duet, Kasey Chambers and Lucinda Williams covers, Ralph Stanley and Hank Williams name-drops, some blues slide and train chug, and a needy closer that sounded kind of like Karyn White’s “Superwoman,” but above all lots of bottomed-out slow ones, all from a 19-year-old convinced that love stinks. She later recorded sundry stray tracks with Wanda Jackson, Train, and Jack White’s Raconteurs, and in 2011 resurfaced as part of Miranda Lambert’s cowpunkish trio Pistol Annies, nicknamed “Hippie Annie,” the sorority sister in their definitive traveling-girl-band number “Takin’ Pills” who opted for prescription antidepressants and pain medicine over booze or chain smoking: “She’s on the highest dose of Prozac a woman can take.”

Monroe has said sad songs come naturally to her, since she first learned the trade back in Knoxville after her dad died of cancer when she was 13. But though she starts Like a Rose actually singing, “I was only 13 when Daddy died,” then catching the next bus south from North Dakota, the album is more manic than depressive — or at least considerably more upbeat than Satisfied. “Monroe Suede,” an eponymous fugitive anthem wherein dad dies drunk, then daughter steals a pickup at 14, is downright uproarious. Kinky midnight toker “Weed Instead of Roses” and “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter),” a duet with Lambert’s hubbie Blake Shelton wherein he claims to be “the guy they wrote about in Fifty Shades of Grey,” are comedy, not tragedy; “Two Weeks Late,” about being unmarried and pregnant with the landlord pestering you for rent money you don’t have and mom noticing your weight gain, is both. And all those songs — “Like a Rose” maybe even more than the louder ones — are immediately, indelibly catchy.

The melancholy tracks are good too; for instance, “Used,” as in being damaged goods, like an untuneable generations-old piano or a house haunted by bodies that died there, is a tune that Monroe was smart enough to salvage from Satisfied. So, like Musgraves’ album, there’s a good balance here: classicist in the Lee Ann Womack neo-countrypolitan sense, yet neither stodgy, frail, nor nostalgic, but rather as thoroughly in tune with modern millennial existence as Taylor Swift, who seemingly opened a commercial door for both artists, though she makes music more ornately arranged than either.

In Nashville, women have long been less stuck than men in the back-40 mud, more on the move. But this genre plows forward only gradually, and both Monroe and Musgraves somehow inch country closer to the world it actually lives in.