The fact that this album with Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe even exists seems like a miracle in this day where superstar franchises like Miranda are micro-managed, and every bit of “product” is controlled to make sure the optimum amount of dollars can be drawn from a name. Side projects, or just generally allowing artists to do what they want, is traditionally not allowed in any shape or form. However Hell on Heels slipped through the cracks for whatever reason, and for mainstream fare, it is not bad at all.
You first have to appreciate this album is slanted toward the delicate frauline of the populous. I may be endowed by my creator with the finest in male plumbing, but I can still get in touch with my feminine side and appreciate the perspective of this album. Also understand this album is meant to be fun. The girls have fake handles for the gig, “Hippie Annie, Holler Annie, & Lone Star Annie”. Just like the current trend on primetime drama of having the hero be a heroine in knee high boots with heaving breasts, that takes down sleeper cells after the kiddos are asleep, the same trend of a troika of crass, slutty, pill-popping girls is popular in music these day (see Those Darlin’s and many others). The Pistol Annies, with their thick accents and bravado-driven songs, fall right into that mold.
A few of the harder-edged songs I just can’t get into, including the first single and title track “Hell on Heels” along with “Bad Example” and “Takin’ Pills”, but I’m willing to give them a slight pass on being the tracks that help establish the persona of the Pistol Annies. Then there’s a couple of songs, “Family Feud” and “Hunter’s Wife”, which just like many mainstream country songs these days, are simply vehicles for throwing out countrisms that targeted demographics can easily identify with as opposed to offering any real substance.
But if you shove those songs to one side of the table, what you’re left with is some very excellent, soulful, well-sung, well-written and produced songs that really touched a nerve with me, even though they’re from the juxtaposed female position. The Angaleena-led “Lemon Drop” about a young girl struggling to get on her feet is a solid track. “Boys From the South” is the catchiest song of the bunch, with the steel guitar right out in front, and a simple approach that employs some countryisms without exploiting them, though I admit, this song has been written many times. Neither of these songs are spectacular, but just like Miranda’s “White Liar” and “House That Built Me”, you don’t feel insulted by hear them coming out of your radio’s speakers.
The real gems are the heartbreaking “Beige”, the exquisite “Housewife’s Prayer”, and “Trailer for Rent”. All three really dig deep down to convey the heart-wrenching struggles of the female condition, with a soul that can only come from a song inspired by real life. The haunting “Housewife’s Prayer” channels Emmylou Wrecking Ball-era arrangement, and combines it with the universal theme of desperation. “Beige” paints a gray picture with broken dreams and an all-too-familiar story of forced wedlock, and for my money, is the marquee song on the album.
One issue I found in “Trailer for Rent” and a few other songs is that the Southern accents at times feel a little put on. Back in the 90’s and early oughts, a thick Southern accent would preclude your single from radio play, but in this era of country checklists and excessively-mined stereotypes, ratcheting up the twang is not only accepted, it is encouraged. When it is authentic, a Southern accent is beautiful on a gorgeous Southern girl, but on a few occasions my radar was sounding for over-accented singing, though again, this might be part of the Pistol Annie gimmick.
This album is not bad. My guess is, what is bad about it is what will be presented to the masses while the best songs are left at home forgotten like the ugly girl on dance night, that is, if Big Brother doesn’t bury it in total from business concerns. But it is good to see Music Row allow Miranda to have a little fun, while helping to promote a few budding and beautiful songwriters in the process, which after all, is another country music tradition corporate country has allowed to whiter on the vine.
The Pistol Annies are tits in my book.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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