Miranda Lambert's fourth solo album is due in October, and, if experience is any guide, it'll be a strong contender for the year's best country album. Suddenly, though, she's facing some strong competition for that title from … herself.
Just two months before she jumps back into the fray on her own, Lambert has released Hell on Heels, the debut album from her side-project trio, Pistol Annies, which features Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley as fellow gunslingers.
Far from the goofy throwaway you might imagine, it's the closest thing to an instant country classic to come out so far this year, and certainly one of the few albums that might appeal equally to George Strait and Gram Parsons fans.
Lambert has carved out a place as country's premier female firecracker, but what were the odds she'd find two contemporaries who share the same fondness for gunpowder and lead, not to mention comparable singer/songwriter chops? Holding your own alongside the modern-day Loretta Lynn is no small feat, but Monroe and Presley are real finds who accomplish just that, even if Lambert's twang is always naturally destined to be the dominant one in any three-part harmony.
Most of the 10 tracks go for a stark realism rarely found in modern-day country, while a few go for comic realism. Among the latter is the hilarious title track, a bold, bluesy salute to gold-digging that has the three gals trading lines about the material goods they've accrued from their barely remembered victims.
Sugar daddy, I'm coming for you! they wail, erasing the fine line between trailer trash and femmes fatale. If country radio had a more developed sense of irony, this straight-faced anthem of greed and sexual conquest would go straight to No. 1.
One other number reaches that level of girl-power exaggeration: Takin' Pills, a rocking narrative about what life might be like out on the road if these three really were starting out touring the bar circuit. How the hell we gonna pay these bills/When one's drinkin', one's smokin', one's takin' pills? they sing, individually and in unison, like hillbilly Andrews Sisters.
But other tracks deal with subjects like bills, pills, and relationship woes in a less caricatured, more sober manner. In Housewife's Prayer, Presley imagines dealing with mounting debt and a failing marriage by burning her house down - not like Lambert's feisty Kerosene, but in the spirit of serious depression. Economic concerns also drive the more upbeat Lemon Drop, in which someday being out of debt is approached with an almost gospel-like sense of aspiration and hope.
The pretty, bitter breakup song Trailer for Rent is Lambert's solo showcase on the album, and her use of the S-word in the chorus may explain why she didn't save it for her solo project, where she presumably has to play slightly more to the mainstream. Monroe's breakout solo number, Beige, takes its title from the color that a four-months-pregnant bride wears on her abruptly scheduled wedding day.
It's as sad as it is matter-of-fact pragmatic - and a great piece of writing that brilliantly showcases Monroe's Dolly-like voice.
If there's a breakout smash here, it's Boys from the South, an ode to all things male and sub-Mason-Dixon that's a tender, lovely complement - or antidote - to all the redneck regional pride anthems overtaking country radio these days. Unfortunately, given the proximity to Lambert's upcoming album, there's probably little chance of it being pushed as a single.
Little else on Hell on Heels sounds remotely designed for radio, but Pistol Annies' abundance of steel guitars, sweet harmonies, and smart-mouthed country poetry is all the more exhilarating for that. What the funny songs and decidedly unamused ones have in common is that none of them are remotely safe. However good Lambert's next album may be, it has a hell of a lot of well-earned sass and casually great songcraft to live up to.