Saturday, December 22, 2012

Miranda Lambert, Part 1

Miranda Lambert - Complete Discography - Part 1
Album Rankings:
1) Revolution
2) Hell on Heels
3) Four the Record
4) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
5) Kerosene

       Say what you will about the girl, but you can't deny one thing -- she's at the very least interesting. A second runner-up on a nationally televised country music talent show called Nashville Star, Miranda eventually signed with Epic Records. Well, the label decided that they were in need of a "bad girl" to market. You see, in 2003, most of the country music scene featured safe, predictable female artists. The Dixie Chicks, one of the few female artists to break this mold, had recently made their now infamous statement that they were "ashamed the President of the United Sates is from Texas", and so now they were essentially abandoned by all of country radio. So, the scene in general was in need of someone to offset happy-go-lucky, "nice girl" artists like Martina McBride, Sara Evans, and Shania Twain.
      Thus, Miranda was chosen for this role, and Kerosene was released. "Strike 'em up and watch them burn, teach 'em what they need to learn, HA!" became a nice little spunky catchphrase, and the rest, as they say, is history. Only the title track had any decent radio success (and even that one only made it to number 15 on the charts), but whatever the case, the album had hit number one on the Top Country Albums chart, so this was more than enough to guarantee her a second album.
       This album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really brought the whole "bad girl" thing to a new level, and at times, it actually became annoying. We get it, you're mean, you like guns, you like breaking hearts...okay, I'll save those criticisms for the album itself. But long story short, it was obvious that she needed to expand artistically if she wanted to really grab hold of the industry...well, in my opinion it was, anyway. Critically, the thing went over great -- Rolling Stone called it the 26th best song of the year, AllMusic gave it a five-star rating (WHAT?!?), Newsweek called it the 4th best album of the decade (WHAT?!?), and it won Album of the Year at the ACM Awards. Heck, Josh Love of Stylus Magazine wrote "This is Jagger, Bowie, Debbie Harry, and early MJ territory." WHAAAAA?!?!?!
       But whatever the case, Miranda still had no number one single to her name. No, it would take until the next album to get that...and that album was Revolution. I'll dissect that one in its own review, but I must say that the thing is absolutely incredible. Miranda replaced the eye-roll-inducing "tough girl" stylistics of the last two albums with obscure cover tunes and ethereal, dreamy ballads that create a mood unlike anything else I've ever heard. And critically, it did fine, as well. It won Album of the Year at both the ACM Awards and the CMA Awards, and it earned rave reviews from publications like Slant and Rolling Stone. Heck, it holds an 85 on Metacritic! Of course, it didn't get much play on many album of the decade lists, but I think this has more to do with it coming out in last 2009 than any problems with quality. (The same thing happened with The Flaming Lips' Embryonic, sadly)
       Well, during this time, Miranda gets a rousing two number ones (out of five singles), and something else VERY important also happens here...she gets engaged to Blake Shelton. That's right, Mr. Bland Country Singer himself. Why is this so important? Because after this, Blake and Miranda were crowned The Reigning Couple of Country Music. Ever since Faith Hill and Tim McGraw stopped recording duets and such, the industry had been looking for someone to shove their marketing into, and LOOKEE HERE, they found it!
       This is not good, ladies and gentlemen. Not only does it get Blake Shelton far more acclaim than he actually deserves, it also shoves Miranda back into the marketing machine she had so brilliantly escaped on Revolution. As to what the longtime results of this are, we'll see, but I still think that Miranda works best on her own terms.
       Which is what she did (for the most part) on her latest effort, Four the Record. It's a very, very bizarre album that's not nearly as much of a classic as Revolution, but again, much like the artist herself, it's extremely interesting throughout. Of course, the co-write with Blake is awful, and of course it won Song of the Year at the CMAs, but that's beside the point for now. 
       I also forgot to mention the very interesting side project that she's involved with, Pistol Annies. It features her and two of her songwriting friends, and I must say...they're quite good. They only have one album out as of now, but it is indeed very good. 
       So there you have it. Personally? I like her. She's easily my favorite modern female country artist, and while that statement does include a load of qualifiers, it's at least saying something. And heck, Revolution is in my top 5 favorite country albums of the 2000s, so that says a lot, to boot. If you're not a country fan, I might not suggest her as strongly as I would someone like Jamey Johnson, but if you're interested, I really think you should check her out. But let's start making our way through the reviews, shall we?

Kerosene (2005)
"You can't hide when you're turned inside out / Love is looking for you now"
Rating: 8
Best Song: Love Is Looking for You
Worst Song: Bring Me Down

       Yawn. There's nothing too bad about this album, but it's just so...predictable. Of course, there are some decent melodies here, and the lyrics are frequently quite good, but nothing about it screams out "essential!" to me.
        Well, maybe one thing -- the ballad "Love is Looking for You" is one of her very best, from the neat organ swells and backwards guitar noises to the heartbreaking lyrics of redemptive love. Plus, the vocal performance is just as solid as you would expect from Miranda. It's probably the most "alternative" sounding thing on here, and it's also the most beautiful. A pretty good combo, to my ears. 
       I also like "What About Georgia" quite a bit. The vocal melody is actually quite great, plus the lyrics directed at some self-centered jerk are excellent...even if at times they are a bit confusing. (The entire song she keeps telling this guy to come back to Georgia, yet at the end she says that "being free is right where [he] belongs". And then she tells him to come back to Georgia again. Um...what?) Plus, the brief guitar solo is kind of nice, so yeah, I like this one pretty good as well.
       And "I Wanna Die" is good too! It's got this sort of slinky blues-rock feel going on, so that's all neat-o and whatnot. Of course, Miranda doesn't sound too great here (Her voice hadn't yet matured enough to possess the sort of sultry slinkiness that this song needs to completely succeed. Of course, she would completely make up for this on "Fine Tune" in 6 years time, which essentially defines the word "sultry", but we'll get there....), but the retro guitar riffs and overall bluesiness of the piece work well enough for me to call it a winner.
       Sadly, that's about it. I guess "Greyhound Bound for Nowhere" is a decent ballad, and "Mama, I'm Alright" has a decent vocal melody, but everything else? Eh, I'll let The Rolling Stones take care of this here. 
        With that stupid joke out of the way, I can now continue. It's by no means essential, but if you're a fan of hers, you'd do well to at least pick up the tracks I've mentioned. At this point, she wasn't really showing anything beyond being a typical mid-aughties female country-star. That would change shortly...

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2007)
Rating: 10
Best Song: Love Letters
Worst Song: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

       Better. How much better? Well, it isn't as big of an improvement as some like to think (I repeat, FIVE STARS on AllMusic, an "A" from Robert Christgau, and Newsweek's pick for the fourth best album of the decade), it is definitely a step up from Kerosene. First off, every song here has its own identity. Far too many of those songs from the previous album just sort of blended together, so much so that even after a few listens, if I read a song title, I can only think "Okay, that one's a ballad, I think" or "Yeah, that one's sort of upbeat". None of the melodies or lyrics were enough to separate the songs in my mind.
       Well, this one does that a-plenty. Nearly everything here sounds completely different, and that is most definitely a great thing. Plus, I really can't find a single song here I could call bad. Sure, I called the title track the worst thing on the album, and that is indeed true, but still, I'd rather listen to it than 90% of whatever's currently playing on modern country radio.
       My only main beef with the album, and the reason that it only gets a 10, is that nothing here is really amazing. Sure, it's all very, very solid, but nothing here really blows my mind. She just hasn't quite got the formula down yet. 
       What do I mean? Well, it's just that nothing's perfect. On nearly every song here there's some little something that I want to change. I want the opening of "Easy from Now On" to be less sudden and clumsy, I want that stupid vocal filter in the title track to go away, I want the lyrics in "Love Letters" to actually make sense, I want the rocking, anthemic chorus of "Gunpowder and Lead" to stop sounding so flat and lifeless...see what I mean?
       Of course, if you read all of those complaints, you could easily see that nearly all of those little problems mainly stem from one thing -- the production. And while you could use the whole "She couldn't control the production! You shouldn't punish her just because the producer did a lousy job!" argument, I would simply respond with this -- while it may not have been her fault, it most certainly hampers my enjoyment of the album to some degree. (Ironically, this is what quite a few people said about Revolution upon its release, as the production on that album is hated by many)
       The best thing here is the retro-tinged ballad "Love Letters", a beautiful song with a great vocal melody. Plus, the steel guitars and choirs are quite a nice touch, aren't they? Also retro is the hilarious "Dry Town", which is a rollicking take on country music of the 50s. The Emmylou Harris cover "Easy from Now On" is a beautiful closer with a lush, gorgeous chorus, and "Famous in a Small Town" is a clever, catchy meditation on the nature of small town fame.
       However, not everything is as solid as those songs. The title track is particularly weak, mixing dumb, "tough" lyrics with one of the album's weakest melodies. Same goes for the over-repetitive "Getting Ready" and "Down", which is another "I'm such a bad girl" track that just tries way too hard lyrically.
       So overall, not bad. I don't flat-out adore this album like some people do, but if you like any of Miranda's stronger efforts, I think you'll enjoy this one as well. 

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