The hardest debate for me in 2013 was whether or not Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park was better than Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose, and while I initially thought Kacey’s was better – smarter lyrics – I eventually decided that Like a Rose was the clear winner: smarter instrumentation.
Both artists released, for all intents and purposes, what might as well be their sophomore albums in 2015. While Kacey Musgraves maintained that lyrical high that I loved her for and increased the number of A-grade melodies; Ashley Monroe vied for a more country pop route than the more traditional country sound of Like a Rose on an album of 13 tracks instead of Like a Rose’s 9 (and even that one had filler) despite working with the same production team (Vince Gill and Justin Niebank). Of course, I’m not one to begrudge an artist if she wants to make a move towards the mainstream (why would you?), especially when Ashley Monroe can’t break the 1 million-view mark on YouTube (whereas Maddie & Tae, whose melodies are more generic but have better production for music videos, have done so with ease), but hearing the disgusting, plodding drums that start during “I Buried Your Love” and are a recurring problem throughout the album is akin to Bob Dylan releasing Knocked Out Loaded right after The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Hyperbole? You get the point, I hope. In other words, the Ashley Monroe vs. Kacey Musgraves debate of 2015 ended in one playthrough. (More interesting: the Future vs. Young Thug debate.)
Not to say that this is a bad album because the tunes aren’t so easy to write-off. Like last time, she puts the album’s best song right at the start: “On To Something Good” lures you in with a great bass line, the album’s best choruses, varied guitar fills (ie. the descending melody at the 0:36 mark; the 1:24 mark) and new melodies everywhere at the end of the song (whereas a different artist might’ve saved them for a completely different song): the backing vocals at the 3:07 mark, the wordless vocal hook at the 3:22 mark (though this one has always struck me as familiar).
The highlights, after that, arranged as they come: “Bombshell” has lovely bass fills and a really great bridge (where the ick drums finally manifest as something useful by helping pound out Ashley Monroe’s frustration channeled through a crescendo); “Weight of the Load” has a nice acoustic figure and a supple bass line; the hook of the title track (otherwise forgettable); the piano-driven hootenanny (check out the “buh-buh-buh”’s sung by males, way in the background) of “Winning Streak” breaking up the album’s monotony; the way Ashley Monroe’s vocals flutter to sing the title’s words at the end of each chorus and the way she sings “I remember” in the coda of “From Time to Time”, the album’s de facto centerpiece, and the near-instrumental breaks in that song are almost equally gorgeous, with its lulling chords and dulcet male vocals.
All that being said, even if she exorcised the filler of the album (“I Buried Your Love,” “Has Anybody Ever Told You” and “I’m Good at Leavin’”) and reduced The Blade to a collection of 10 short pop songs, it still wouldn’t be on-par with Like a Rose: the lyrics are more generic (less autobiographical) and the instrumentation is – for the most part – more sterile (less warm), so: