It’s called Palomino, and it’s a Miranda Lambert record. That means it includes some up-tempo sassy songs, and some slow and meaningful singer/songwriter songs. It means it’s more country than most of the mainstream, but not country enough for the independent country snobs. It means Shefani stans hate it no matter what it is, as will a contingent of fans of a band from Oklahoma. What the hell is a ‘Shefani’? Well keep reading, and maybe I’ll tell you. But ultimately, what you need to know about Palomino is it’s very much a Miranda Lambert record.
Miranda’s major records are her mainstays, meaning they need to seed radio with singles, and her live shows with songs that will get the crowd singing along. When Miranda really wants to express herself, she saves a lot of that material for other stuff, like her 2018 record with the Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel. Or if she really wants to strip it all down and gets rootsy, she’ll release something like 2021’s The Marfa Tapes. With her 2016 album The Weight of These Wings, Miranda made it a double so she could put it all in one place, and it was probably her best album yet.
What I’m getting at is that with Miranda’s main studio records, there is an expectation. After all, she’s a franchise artist, and now an Entertainer of the Year, according to the ACM Awards. Dozens of folks rely on Miranda’s continued success for their salaries, from managers and publicists, to side players and roadies, to songwriters who Miranda champions more than most, and makes sure they can make a living doing what they want to do, in part due to her continued success.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything distinguishing about Palomino. In fact, the album does feel like a step in the right direction for Miranda, after a lateral move, or maybe a stumble backward with her last record, 2019’s Wildcard produced by Jay Joyce. The more rock-oriented and formulaic producer just felt like an ill fit for Miranda. Listening to Palomino helps validate that prognosis delivered back in 2019.
Palomino was recorded and produced more organically, and that comes across in the finished product. Instead of working with some big-named producer, it was produced by long-time Miranda songwriting buddies Jon Randall and Luke Dick, along with Miranda herself. Starting with the song and songwriters has always been what has separated Miranda from the rest of the mainstream. Natalie Hemby and Jack Ingram also make big contributions to this record.
Included on Palomino are a few songs we first heard in stripped-down form on The Marfa Tapes. But spoiling the surprise doesn’t hurt the listening experience of the lonesome and wanting studio version of “In His Arms,” or the playful and attitudinal “Geraldine,” with the ‘G-G-G-G-Gearldine’s’ rendering much better with the palm-muted rake of electric guitar strings behind them.
Distinguishing ears always go searching through a Miranda Lambert record, looking for those handful of songs that likely won’t be selected for the radio, but are worthy of a personal playlist, and are a bit more country than the rest. On Palomino, this includes a couple of songs that speak to Miranda’s wandering spirit in “Tourist” and “Pursuit of Happiness.” Both songs are pleasantly rootsy, with acoustic and steel guitar tones dominating the experience. They’re joined by “That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play,” which makes a strong argument for itself as the strongest of the whole 15-song set.
But throughout Palomino, and even during “That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play,” there are little electronic accoutrements, keyboard beds, and guitar tone selections that aren’t just not very native to country, they’re also just kind of generic. Miranda Lambert has never really labored to have a defined sound. And even though that’s graced her with the freedom of not being hemmed into anything, it’s also meant no album or song is especially distinguishing. Again, the best way to describe Palomino is as a Miranda Lambert record.
This also means of course you’re going to get some sassy escapist material as well, like the album’s start off, “Actin’ Up.” This is where Miranda’s Southern accent all of a sudden seems more pronounced, and her attitude unapologetic. This is also exemplified in the rather silly and superfulous “Country Money,” and the pretty flat and disappointing collaboration with the B-52’s called “Music City Queen” with it’s rehashed classic rock elements.
But it’s fair to say this stuff is also what instills Miranda Lambert’s music with an element of “fun” for many. You just wonder how much longer the now 38-year-old will keep this kind of material in her repertoire. It is possible to exude attitude and be entertaining while also saying something more meaningful. But with Miranda Lambert, old habits die hard. In fact, some of these songs let us know how proud she is of that truth. Embracing the id and impulsive behavior has always been part of Miranda’s identity.
But nothing on Palomino will make anyone repulse, which is the regular experience when taking a swim through a mainstream country record. And Palomino does feel like a step in the right direction from the (thankfully) brief Jay Joyce era. Is the album some transformational sea change as some in the media have characterized—including some that never paid attention to a Miranda Lambert record but all of a sudden are singing her praises after she released the inclusive and clap happy promotional track “Y’all Means All“? Probably not. It’s funny how that works.
Again, it’s best to describe Palomino as a Miranda Lambert record, which means it’s probably not as good or as country as the recent major label albums from Carly Pearce or Ashley McBride, but it’s much better than than the balance of the mainstream. Miranda Lambert remains a bright spot, a songwriting champion, and someone who keeps it somewhat country in a hostile environment. Palomino underscores this once again.
…and by the way, a ‘Shefani’ is a superfan of Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani. There’s your little bit of pop culture trivia for the day. #TheMoreYouKnow
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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