Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose (2013) – A-
Constructed in such a way that its (probably) autobiographically informed ballads (tracks 1, 3, 5, 6, 8) are tempered by more upbeat numbers (tracks 4, 7, 9) – and the one I didn’t count somehow managing both at the same time (track 2) – this makes Like a Rose‘s 32-minute runtime seem even tighter and makes the filler (especially in the second half; I can’t recall a thing about “Monroe Suede” especially) seem “better within the context of the album”. Quotation marks applied, since she hates a cliche, and that’s one of the music critic’s most common. On cliches, “Two Weeks Late” starts off with typical small town country problems (“I bet I’m the talk of this town / If you don’t have a ring, then he won’t settle down”), but the choruses go “What a damn cliche” as she sings a bunch of them before ultimately switching the words so the title takes on a second meaning (even if predictable) and the cliche deployment pays off. Initially preferring Kacey Musgraves’ breakthrough that same year for being more applicable to my life (“So kiss lots of boys / Kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into”), I’ve come to realize that I can just as easily empathize with Monroe. Not because I can identify with a lyric like “I was only 13 when daddy died / Mama started drinking and my brother just quit trying” or “Ran off with what’s his name when I turned 18 / Got me out of North Dakota, but it did not change a thing”, but rather because there’s so much intense care in both a) how she sings them and b) the instrumentation. The drums are careful to guide Monroe on “Used” but never overpower her (as if the weight of the metaphors weren’t enough, just wait until she stops singing words); the rest of the instruments provide such lovely colour. Elsewhere, check out the guitar fills during the verses of “The Morning After” or the piano that brightens the choruses. But the best comes first, the acoustic guitar and light drums both as drizzling rain on “Like a Rose”; an accordion coming in like a pedal steel guitar. When she finishes the first few lines and the bass guitar joins in, I can’t even fathom a prettier instrumental from that same year.
Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town (2016) – A-
Breaking out in 2013 alongside Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves (who sings backing vocals here), Brandy Clark’s sophomore album is more The Blade than it is Pageant Material, which is to say Clark ups the production (with the help of Jay Joyce); as soon as the curtains peel back on “Soap Opera,” the team hits you with a gospel choir singing the exuberant chorus. Clark ups the sass as well: following “Soap Opera” with “Girl Next Door” (which she rhymes with “Virgin Mary metaphor”, a cleverness that’s worthy of applause by itself even if the choruses weren’t a delight) and later, “Daughter,” wherein she condemns a heartbreaker with the ultimate revenge – a daughter. Those songs, plus “Broke” with the tumble riff that segues you into different sections, are the album’s catchiest and most immediate. But there’s still plenty of intimacy (by way of 12 Stories) and care in the instrumentation throughout: as if the dead-pan and well-phrased “If I ever met her, bet she’d probably hate me / Cause you’d wanna date me” on “Girl Next Door” weren’t enough, check out the guitar figure popping up after each, or the delightful banjo guitar on “Love Can Go To Hell.” But it’s “Three Kids No Husband” that should be in a collection of great short stories that might be the album’s best: the turn of phrase of “Hair net job” (again, clever); the details of “She knows damn well she don’t make the best cup of coffee / But she’s quick with a smile and good with names / Those lunch tickets ain’t gonna tip themselves” or how she steamrolls past the cliche “She’s a mom and dad…” by expansion, “…and a taxi driver” and proceeds to rhyme that with “When the baby’s sick she’s an up-all-nighter.” Plus: the song has her best singing to boot (“She lights a cigarette out on the balcony”). After much deliberation: better than The Blade and almost on par with Pageant Material (though it should be stated that this one takes a bigger chance), and the fourth-best country album of 2016 in my book!
Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings (2016) – A-
I was weary of The Weight of These Wings because it’s a double album of country pop. And yes, I’m sure it could’ve been stronger with some of the weaker material exorcised down to a tighter 20 (but what to cut? I look forward to hearing your picks), even if these 24 were already cut from some 60. But listening and relistening, I shouldn’t have been worried: if any pop artist – country or otherwise – could’ve pulled off a double, it would’ve been either one with a revolving door of features/producers (the most unlikely springs to mind immediately – any guesses?) or the Nashville Goddess that’s been making consistent hits for a decade now (to say nothing of the other talent involved here). The album’s divided into two parts: the first disc is titled “The Nerve”, and the songs mostly have to do with the flight action of the sympathetic nervous system, with songs titled “Runnin’ Just in Case” (pushed onward by Matt Chamberlain’s drums), “Highway Vagabond” (some of catchiest choruses on the record, rivalling “Pink Sunglasses” or “Vice”) or “Getaway Driver” (elevated by the plucked strings). Something like “Ugly Lights” is about running too, just using alcoholism as the vehicle of escape instead. On the other hand, the second disc, “The Heart,” is more reflective, and thus, less immediate but ultimately more rewarding. Shit, opener “Tin Man,” where she tells the character from The Wizard of Oz how lucky he is to be without a heart, ought to tell you everything you need to know about the disc, especially with the context of Lambert’s emotional state. But even better than the words is the instrumentation: the interplay between the pedal steel guitar and the piano during the solo of “To Learn Her”; the ringing electric guitar of “Keeper of the Flame.” Plenty of other highlights: the way she playfully sings the hook of “Pink Sunglasses” (and if the “power of the plastic” is too silly for you, focus on the electric guitar instead); the colour of the electric guitar (in the first third) and the pedal steel guitar on first disc closer “Use My Heart” (co-written by Ashley Monroe), linking the two discs with a chorus that goes “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” Elsewhere, even a minor cut like “Tomboy” has the high harmonies in the back half, especially when it dances with the pedal steel guitar; tracks like “Well-Rested” and “Bad Boy” are memorable if only because their gimmicks (waltz-time and the false start, respectively). At the end of the day, this is just as good as Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in terms of country albums in 2016. The problem is this one just doesn’t have nearly as many cool points with the non-country folk. A double album that’s likely more consistently exceptional than your favorite double album to the point that I wish I had the energy to bother with a track-by-track review. Too lazy right now, so this paragraph will have to do, but maybe one day.