Miranda Lambert can seemingly do no wrong. Adding pop pleasure and a woman's point of view to the singer-songwriter/outlaw-country template that once made Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam mainstream-country contenders, Lambert has, since her 2005 debut, been as reliable a record-maker as exists in any genre.
Three albums into a career that brought mainstream country stardom on her own ornery Texas terms, Lambert broke through big time last year, landing nine nominations — a record for a solo female artist — at the annual Country Music Association Awards.
And what did Lambert do with her newfound stature? She's got a fourth solo album on deck for this fall. But before that she took the time to help pull a couple of like-minded friends onto the big stage via the side project Pistol Annies, a girl-group-style band that released its debut album, Hell on Heels, a few weeks ago.
Pistol Annies isn't a gaggle of stars moonlighting together — it's not the Traveling Wilburys, with a Dylan and Beatle. And, closer to home stylistically, it's not, despite the comparisons, Trio, a 1987 album that joined established stars Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt.
Instead, with Pistol Annies, Lambert shares her spotlight with a couple of women still trying to break through: Ashley Monroe, who scored some minor hits on an aborted Nashville deal a few years ago, and Angaleena Presley, a songwriter who has penned hits for others (Ashton Shepherd's current single "Look It Up") but hadn't been able to get her own record made.
Hell on Heels has the appearance of a side-project trifle, skipping by with a mere 10 songs in 30 minutes. But it's arguably one of the most fully realized — and best — albums of the year.
Vocally, the trio complements each other: The Texas-born Lambert is the sauciest and most conversational. Tennessean Monroe is the smoothest, with a little hint of countrypolitan sophistication. And Kentuckian Presley's unadorned prettiness has the most traditional country/bluegrass feel.
Hell on Heels is organized like an old two-sided vinyl album, with swaggering, traded-verse side-openers at tracks one and six. The leadoff title track is a lush gold-diggers' anthem ("Poor old Billy, bless his heart/I'm still using his credit cards," Monroe sings) with synchronized handclaps and harmony chorus.
On the follow-up, persona-establishing "Takin' Pills," the Annies swap verses describing each other's vices. Lambert pegs Monroe as a pill-popper ("She's got a Tennessee mountain point of view/If you're gonna have one, might as well have two"), Monroe outs Presley as a chain-smoker ("Raised up right in the hills of Kentucky/But she ain't gonna smile until she lights up a Lucky"), and Presley notes Lambert's hard drinking ("She's a rootin'-tootin' pistol from the Lone Star state/She mixes up a double at the break of every day").
There's obviously a lot of dress-up happening here. The songs on Hell on Heels aren't personal like much of Lambert's own best work but are particularly well-crafted songwriting exercises, with downhome, down-on-your-luck settings that play off the "real"/outsider country concept.
The recession-economy daydream "Lemon Drop" ends, weakly, with a skit-like, collective "oh gawd," but that misstep aside, the details here aren't the stuff of Hee-Haw — $7,000 of payments left on a car already needing repairs, a television bought on a credit card. "Beige" is a bleakly comic portrait of a small-town shotgun wedding ("Nowhere Baptist church/Wrinkles in his shirt/No one's having a ball at the reception hall"). There are two sharp portraits of working-class wives, one thinking about taking a match to her home, the other just thinking about taking off.
I have no idea if Lambert, Monroe, or Presley are familiar with the Murfreesboro/Nashville indie trio Those Darlins, but it's easy to imagine the Pistol Annies being inspired by them. The Darlins were earlier to the country-girl-group conceit and presented a take on Middle Tennessee at once more rural and less country.
Though the Pistol Annies are rooted in songwriting collaboration, they still deploy the professional studio musicians that are de rigueur in Nashville. More a product of indie/punk, the Darlins play their own music. And while I think the Annies write better songs — and are better singers — they could use a little of the Darlins' ramble and racket in their sound.
On their eponymous 2009 debut, Those Darlins tended toward the acoustic and front-porchy, with a sound akin to underrated '90s indie touchstone Freakwater but with more straightforward laughs and self-consciously cornpone content. The honky-tonk shuffle "Wild One" was their statement of principles, but elsewhere they paid knowingly comic tribute to the addictive qualities of fried chicken ("The Whole Damn Thing") and the righteousness of pick-up trucks and barefoot backwoods life ("Snaggle-Tooth Mama").
Unintentionally ceding this territory to the Pistol Annies, on their 2011 follow-up, Screws Get Loose, Those Darlins mostly leave that world behind, announcing the departure with the careening feedback guitar that launches the lead/title track. (And giving their new boy drummer the lead on "Let U Down.")
If Those Darlins was an album built on communal home life in rural Murfreesboro, Screws Get Loose is the work of a touring rock band (as the road romance "Boy" makes plain). And if the more generic rock sound of Screws Get Loose isn't as striking at first as the trad-country swing of Those Darlins, it suggests more staying power. And they've still got songs. The lead single, "Be Your Bro," is more than a tomboy anthem; it's a smart, novel, and totally felt lament about sexual politics.
Other than rock critics who actually care about country music and particularly open-minded Americana enthusiasts — small groups both — I don't imagine there's much overlap between the audiences of Pistol Annies and Those Darlins. But I think fans of each would appreciate the other. I propose a joint tour. Until then ...
Saturday, September 17th
$10; 9 p.m.