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Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow is Tastefully Gorgeous, For Better or Worse

The sturdy 14½ ” x  14½” x 3½” hinged and burn-engraved wooden box enclosing vinyl Ashley Monroe album, CD, ¾-sleeve sweatshirt, and press kit that Warner Nashville sent out in 2013 may or may not go down in history as the last great ridiculous swag item mailed to susceptible tastemakers before record companies opted to drastically cut back on pre-email publicity stunts. That it was used to promote Like a Rose–Monroe’s second album, and to my ears still her wittiest, most energetic and best—may just mean I took the bait, but I don’t think so. Since then, she’s avoided rib-ticklers like “Weed Instead of Roses,” “You Ain’t Dolly (and You Ain’t Porter)” and the devastatingly broke and pregnant “Two Weeks Late,” not to mention rip-roarers like “Monroe Suede,” and gravitated almost entirely toward the sad songs that she’d always said came naturally, and that in fact had dominated her barely released and rarely heard but totally moving 2006 teenage debut Satisfied in the first place.

That no track from Monroe’s own four albums has done nearly as well on country radio as her phone-call cameos on old collections by Blake Shelton and hack-rockers Train may explain…something.  And back in Pistol Annies’ “Takin’ Pills,” Hippie Annie admittedly did warn us about her antidepressant and pain-med dosage. Plus, there’s of course the career-trajectory phenomenon, in recent decades, where critically acclaimed not-quite-alt country women tend to metamorphosize in the direction of sultry/smoky/torchy if often rather vague mood and atmosphere. That seems part of what’s happening on, say, class-of-2013 breakout peer Kacey Musgraves’ new Golden Hour (her least compelling set partly because it’s  her least humorous including her Christmas one, and still not bad); it happened ages ago with k.d. lang and later Shelby Lynne, whose turn-of-the-millennium Dusty in Memphis homage I Am Shelby Lynne (Best New Artist Grammy despite being her sixth album!) gets echoed somewhat on Monroe’s new Sparrow. An even more recent template, beginning with Sparrow’s gauzy/blurry long-blonde-hair-cascading-down-right-cheek profile-shot cover, has to be Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From, the record that made countrypolitan revivalism safe for Americana purists, an album so behind and ahead of its time that it got a vinyl release in 2005, when almost nothing did. Sounded lovely, but had nothing a fraction as funny as Womack’s legit 1998 country smash “I’ll Think of a Reason Later.” See what I’m getting at?

Lest my ambivalence overshadow all, Sparrow is quite a beaut, too. Dave Cobb, best known for hugely respected if ponderous affairs by serious fellas like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton (and now, as of the same release date as Monroe, old-timey pretenders Old Crow Medicine Show), has supplanted Vince Gill on the producer’s barstool. But it ain’t what you’d call stodgy. There are way more souped-up swooping strings (almost Chic-disco in “Hard on a Heart”) than on Monroe’s likewise pained but more generic 2015 The Blade, and a Southern gothic veneer to opener “Orphan” and missing-and-missed miss mystery “Rita” that reminds you Monroe allegedly shares real-life DNA with the Carter Family. Dusty/Shelby soul inflections abound as well, especially in yearning erotic regret single “Hands on You,” which I hope some randy country DJ manages to segue into Eric Church’s comparably wall-defiling and R&B’ed “Like a Wrecking Ball.” And Monroe looks at parenting from both sides now, cooing in “Mother’s Daughter’ about how commitment issues run in the family (nifty juxtaposition of “sayin’ forever” and “stayin’ together”), sending a sweet sing-songy note in “Daddy I Told You” to the man who cancer stole when she was 13, and seemingly embracing a daughter in the ‘60s-girlpop-sunny “She Wakes Me Up.”   

The album’s also got a bit of light religion (in “Keys to the Kingdom” and maybe “Hands on Me” if you’re a blasphemer), whirligig organ breaks flashing back to Muscle Shoals and rocksteady and acid psych, some welcome humming, and more slurring of lyrics than is strictly necessary—though again, it’s not hard to see what Monroe’s going for. Sparrow transcends its own tastefulness, and odds are excellent you’ll find it gorgeous. But I still hope not-quite-alt-country real-live-wires Ashley McBryde and Sarah Shook give us a couple more wild years before they follow in its woozy footsteps.