Album Review: Pistol Annies — Hell on Heels

Karlie Justus Marlowe | August 26th, 2011

pistolannieshellonheelsEvery once and again, there comes a point on particularly exceptional albums that transforms the experience from a mere collection of songs into an exercise of truth and discovery. These musical gems manage to fulfill expectations while simultaneously packing in a range of surprises, stretching the artist, listener and – on the rarest of occasions – the genre and music industry itself.

That epiphany is hinted at several times on Hell on Heels, the debut album from Miranda Lambert’s female trio Pistol Annies, but is solidified at the record’s midpoint during the defeated and depressingly gorgeous lyrics of “Housewife’s Prayer”: “Well, I’ve been thinking about all these pills I’m taking/I wash them down with an ice cold beer/And the love I ain’t been making.” It’s heavy, potent stuff that rarely makes an appearance on mainstream country fare as of late. Shining and smoldering all at the same time, its honesty is both comfortable and uncomfortable – a fitting summary of the haute hillbilly sound of Hell on Heels as a whole.

By now, the story of the friendship and formation of the group’s Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley has reached not-so-urban myth status, their collective songwriting skills and love of traditional country music bringing them together like a Captain Planet episode that swaps out earth, wind and fire rings for shot glasses of a Captain of a different variety. It’s the combination of those lyrical chops and real-life bonds that truly make the project come alive, turning what could be a gimmick into a grand event. The feisty, smart spirit of the Dixie Chicks is resurrected here for the first time since being abruptly and unceremoniously laid to rest, and on each and every song there’s a moment that feels special and unexpected. Cases in point: Lambert’s Andy Griffith Show-worthy whistling on “Lemon Drop,” the instrumental breakdown on “Family Feud” that sounds like it was fashioned from the family silver swiped in the song, and a rockabilly riff that carries the zany “Takin’ Pills.” All the while, flourishes of harmonies spiff up the simplest of statements.

The twang factor is exceedingly high, going through the roof on Lambert’s “Trailer for Rent.” Lyrics “I left the beans on/I put my jeans on” and “I’ve done the dishes/I’ve played the Mrs./’Bout time somebody got the hell out” are delivered in a flat drawl that candidly communicates the run-down relationship withering away in an equally run-down mobile home. When paired with cuts such as “The Hunter’s Wife” and the rollicking “Bad Example,” the result is deliciously redneck.

The same devil name-checked in the title track is clearly in these details that set the Pistol Annies apart from its peers. The fact that all the songs were written by the Annies – with a little help on “Family Feud” from honorary “Pistol Andy” Blake Shelton – is an intimate continuation of the record’s authentic feel. In fact, every element here is so refreshingly outside the realm of mainstream country music that the album’s one potential radio hit “Boys from the South” slumps upon first listen. Viewed on its own, it’s a catchy answer to the onslaught of countrier-than-thou songs propagated by radio’s reigning male artists that’s both nostalgic and fresh. Alongside its weightier counterparts, however, it’s one of the few moments of the album that feel slightly out of place.

This is an album recorded in bits and pieces as studio time and space allowed, coming together before a release was even signed off on by a label. That feeling of urgency and energy is palpable, and radiates in the specific stories, settings and feelings that roar to life. While Lambert is clearly the star here, Monroe and Presley rise to the challenge of crafting a collection of songs that address the underbelly of fairytale engagements, pastoral perfection and the lives of struggling artists. It’s all so damn honest – and honestly, Hell on Heels is one of the year’s best country records.

4 Stars

  1. Gator
    August 26, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Great review! I agree with the rating and everything you said, my only hope is that they will continue to do these albums every now and then so it will be an occasional treat. Also, my favorite tracks are “Lemon Drop”, “Boys From the South” (it doesn’t fit on the album, yes, but its one of the better “commercial” songs of the year), and “Family Feud”. My one complaint is I don’t think Ashley got much of a chance to shine which for me is a major downfall.

  2. Jenn N.
    August 26, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    I haven’t heard this album yet (I’m gonna get it later today when I get off work) but I’m really hoping this will be a big, positive push for Ashley’s solo career. I’ve been waiting on pins and needles for another album from her ever since “Satisfied.” While I’m excited to hear and support anything she’s involved in, I’d still love a full album of her solo material.

    Other than that, I love the first single “Hell on Heels,” as well as Miranda Lambert’s music. I was not familiar with Angaleena Pressley before “HoH” but I like her voice on the track so I also plan to check out her solo work as well.

  3. Rick
    August 26, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Great review Karlie! I just knew I’d like the review far more than the actual music itself…

  4. Barry Mazor
    August 26, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Angaleena P was probably bets known, before this CD, for co-writiting the Ashton Shepard single “Look It Up.” Personally, I find the Pistol Annie CD one of the more striking and–I’ll bet–memorable releases of the year.

  5. Occasional Hope
    August 26, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    I’m interested in hearing this, although so far it only seems to be available in the US.

  6. Leeann Ward
    August 26, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Very good album, though I agree that it would have been nice to hear more of Ashley Monroe.

  7. Rick
    August 26, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Angaleena’s first placement on a bigger name release here in the US was probably “Knocked Up” on the Heidi Newfield solo album debut.

    Australian country fans have been hearing some of Angaleena’s songs on the radio for a few years as Kirsty Lee Akers has included at least two of her compositions on each of her two albums. Aussie singer Jasmine Rae had a big hit down under with “Look It Up” as the title track of her debut album a couple of years ago. Those young Aussie gals have a fine ear for interesting new country songs no matter where they originate and seem to catch on more quickly than their Yankee counterparts.

  8. Gator
    August 28, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Rick is there a reason why you don’t like this album? At all.

  9. Jon
    August 28, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Dunno about the album, but I heard the title track, and couldn’t find much to like in it.

  10. Jeremy Dylan
    August 29, 2011 at 8:33 am

    I don’t think Rick’s heard the record, he’s just assuming he won’t like it.

    Go on, mate, give it a try!

  11. Jeremy Dylan
    August 29, 2011 at 8:36 am

    For my own part, I really dig this album, and I hope between this and Dierks Bentley’s Up On The Ridge, we’re seeing the start of a trend of mainstream stars incorporating more Americana leaning digressions into their careers.

    It’s interesting to note that this record features the same production team (Lidell and Wrucke) and many of the same players as Lambert’s last three albums, but offers up a distinctly different set of textures.

    A note to Australian listeners – you may know ‘Lemon Drop’ better as ‘Better Days’.

  12. Carrie
    August 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    After eagerly awaiting this album as much as I did, I am so happy to say that it did not disappoint. I 100% agree with Karlie.

    As my husband and I listened to it on Saturday, we both noted how much more satisfying some of the “side projects” of late have been than their mainstream brothers and sisters (notably this and Up on the Ridge last year).

    More, please.

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