Hell On Heels
, September 20th, 2011 07:45
While it's true that country music often tells stories, it's also the only genre whose songs tell stories about work. When record companies created the 'alt-country' moniker in the 90s the likes of Uncle Tupelo borrowed accents and dobros to embroider uninhabited, pointless songs; I still don't get why Jeff Tweedy still hoodwinks listeners into thinking he's an expert craftsman. As big as Toby Keith and Tim McGraw are, they still sing convincingly about buying their kids combo meals and letting them pick prizes at Wal-Mart (Keith's 'Can't Buy You Money'), or waking up with bloodshot eyes and an angry wife. Country's vitality lies in its specificity.
Pistol Annies, comprised of the widely loved Miranda Lambert and up-and-comers Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, reminds me of The Highwaymen, the mid-80s collaboration which saw Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings getting high on their tough-hombre mythos; and Trio, on which Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt brought their exquisite trilling to the American songbook. As intermittently excellent as those projects were, however, marketing concepts they remain. The 30-minute Hell on Heels' modest triumph resides in the intelligence and empathy with which these women limn scenarios north and west of Nashville that they haven't yet put in shoeboxes with the other mementos. Their songs are about paying for houses the landlord owns and washing down pills with ice-cold beer; about the ambivalence with which they accept being hell on heels for those boys from the South; about defining "better days ahead" as the length and breadth of lemon drop as metaphor.
Forget star power for a moment; her talent makes Lambert the standout even if her name is unfamiliar. To project desire or avidity—the appetite for experience—is a singer's most difficult task, and one at which she's excelled since the days of not just 'Kerosene' but ruminative moments like 'Me And Charlie Talking'. Monroe's silky, uncertain alto and Presley's weary-before-her-time husk just aren't strong enough on their own; it's as if Bob Dylan agreed to join the Traveling Wilburys and learned that the other members were four Tom Pettys. But Petty has talent too, and just as his nasal dork complemented Dylan's gravelly crank, Monroe and Presley's workaday plainness warm Lambert's loner tendencies (when she stumbles on an awkward phrase, as she does on 'Trailer For Rent', she tends to belt). These voices mark the boundaries of friendship, of community—a musical and philosophical strength.
Thank goodness these women's comity resonates—not much else in these characters' lives does. "The good Lord giveth / And a family taketh away", the trio harmonize in the final lines of 'Family Feud', a Eudora Welty mama's-six-feet-under farce whose twang and bounce is transformed into gothic psychodrama. In its modest way Hell on Heels is the most salient recession album extant, but for these perceptive semi-(in)famous women in small towns the end of boom times means that chisellers and freeloaders still regard them as commodities. Pistol Annies play the game like pros, though; they are long past the point of simply acknowledging they're just hell on heels. Maybe that's why the tunes dependent on the aural equivalent of the woman parts in Judd Apatow films are the weakest, the worst of which is 'Takin' Pills', an infrequent example of striking poses instead of commenting on them. Aiming for the exhilaration of Loretta Lynn's 'The Pill' by hitching it to the rhythm of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', it's merely failed outrage. But even a trifle like 'Bad Example' (at least there's no "Mrs" in the title) boasts a vocal filigree that's like a bow on a present, such as the way the women stretch "ramble" into "rambooooo".
Expect Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even Revolution and Hell on Heels will sound innocuous, especially if played as a unit. The pointed strophes in Lambert's 'Trailer For Rent' (which I sure hope she uses as a template on her own forthcoming album) and the dusky ardor of Angaleena Presley's pipes on 'The Hunter's Wife' take time to appreciate, which isn't the same as not being able to instantly hum them. Hell on Heels is one beautiful amble.