Album Review: Pistol Annies — Annie Up
It’s hard to pinpoint the most tantalizing, fulfilling payoff from the Pistol Annies’ 2011 debut, Hell on Heels, when the trio burst into the scene with an exciting whoosh of honesty. Sure, there was the vindication of some long-awaited attention for songwriting darlings Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, and the rush of that rare alignment of critical and mainstream success. Ah, and the hauntingly beautiful song about insurance fraud, arson and washing pills down with beer — that’ll stick with you.
But perhaps most of all, Miranda Lambert’s girl group made a stand for female empowerment in a way very few country women ever have, sharing Loretta Lynn and the Dixie Chicks’ knack for creating honest, catchy songs about the best and worst parts of being a woman. It was refreshing and overdue, and seemed to open the floodgates for similarly candid solo projects from Monroe and Kacey Musgraves.
Two years and more than half a million sales later, the Pistol Annies can’t bank on that element of surprise anymore. Luckily, success — and time spent on the road as part of Lambert’s headlining tour — has served them them well, producing a string of 12 sharply drawn, if not slightly disparate, tracks that continue that pattern of cringe-worthy, hilarious and/or sobering truth telling.
Annie Up opens up similarly to its predecessor, trading the hand claps of “Hell on Heels” for snaps on lead track “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On.” Halfway through the a cappella confessional, however, the guitars and drums roar to life in support of their femme fatale mission. From there, the band doesn’t let up — and, for better (the staccato noise behind Monroe’s snarling “We’ll both play our parts in this disaster/I’ll be the bitch and you’ll be the bastard” on “Unhappily Married”) or worse (the distracting earring-like jangling on “Dear Sobriety” distracts from the dagger “If heartache won’t kill you/You’ll find something that will”), continues a full-court press of arrangements that are just as brave as the songwriting.
If Hell On Heels served as a rousing introduction to the band’s backgrounds and beliefs, Annie Up is a celebration of ordinary moments: “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” laments the pretty pennies of beauty routines in three-quarter time; “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina” is just a barroom pep-talk, presumably at a pub owned by Natalie Maines; and “Loved By A Workin’ Man” uses hammer-like percussion to drive home the benefits of blue collar romance.
The harmonies are even tighter and more organic, improved this go-round by recording in one booth and spending time on the road together weaving their vocal tapestry, and they make sketches like the slow-burn of “Trading One Heartbreak for Another” sizzle. That sparkle helps to overshadow outliers like “Girls Like Us,” a throwaway moment on the album’s generous length.
The high expectations that surely inspired the title Annie Up falter only during those brief moments, when the combined force of these ladies’ talents recalls trying to drink from a firehose — though not even that high pressure stream could produce enough water to extinguish the fiery torch of edgy country music the Pistol Annies continue to carry.
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