Album Review: Pistol Annies — Hell on Heels
Every 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.
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