Saturday, December 22, 2012

Miranda Lambert, Part 2

Miranda Lambert - Complete Discography - Part 2

Revolution (2009)
Rating: 12
"I'm not easy to understand, but you know me like the back of your hand"
Best Song: Makin' Plans
Worst Song: Somewhere Trouble Don't Go

       And it all comes together. The phrase "modern classic" is thrown around quite a bit these days, but this record defines that term for me. What do I mean? Well, I mean an album that doesn't *quite* stand up to the classics, but is still an absolutely amazing experience. THAT is exactly what this is.
       Of course, I feel the need to put a disclaimer out there: I'm not completely sure that everyone will enjoy this album as much as I do. Sure, I don't think anyone with at least a moderate level of tolerance for country music could call this an outright bad album, but I get the feeling like the album only works especially for my tastes. So, in short, a lot of people will like it, but only a few will love it, ya dig?
       So what's so great about this blonde redneck's stupid little country-pop album, anyway? Um...everything, really. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but I really, really love this thing. The main criticism that I see shoveled at the album again and again is that the production is too loud. But of course, my favorite album of the 21st century is the noise-fest of The Flaming Lips' Embryonic, so maybe I'm not the best judge here, but still...I never really get annoyed at the volume level. 
       In all honesty, I feel like that's one issue I have with a lot of country music review sites; nearly every song that has any slight bit of noisiness is instantly bashed. I get it, country is a somewhat calm, docile genre, but you can only express so many emotions with a voice, soft percussion, a fiddle, and an acoustic guitar, y'know? Sometimes volume is indeed needed to convey the singer's full intention!! 
       Anyhow...I like the production. And all the melodies are first rate, too!! How about that hook on the chorus of "Heart Like Mine"? Good luck getting that out of your head. Of course, not everything is THAT miraculously catchy, but nearly every song on here has a very memorable, pleasant vocal melody. That's definitely a good thing.
       And the lyrics! Boy, this girl's come a long way from the confused metaphors of "Love Letters" and the dumb "bad girl" posturing of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend". Take "Dead Flowers". Now those are some nice metaphors; the idea of using the titular objects and burned-out Christmas lights to represent a completely emotionless significant other is both clever, affecting, and vivid. Plus, the big crescendo at the end is really, really cool. Okay, maybe the dramatic bells were a bit over the top...but still, the sound made by the thrashing drums, distorted guitars, and Miranda screaming "Like dead flowers" over and over again is pretty freaking great.
       And of course you have the neat-o threesome of "Me and Your Cigarettes", "Maintain the Pain", and "Airstream Song". What's so neat about it? Well, you get three songs in a row that are all very experimental, as well as only two minutes a-piece. Pretty cool, huh?
       "Cigarettes" is a unabashed pop song, synthesized handclaps and all. Of course, the melody is great, the guitar riffs throughout are cool, and the titular metaphor is really clever. "Maintain the Pain" is a REALLY bizarre number; just listen to that guitar tone! It's straight out of Nirvana's "Come As You Are"!! And that a strange string sample being played backwards throughout? Hey, that sounds like "Tomorrow Never Knows"!! Of course, once it reaches the chorus, it turns into a "Kerosene"-esque stomper, but whatever the case -- it's a really neat song. 
       Ah, and then there's "Airstream Song", which is the first track on the album to introduce the infamous (in my mind) "Revolution sound". And what is this sound, you ask? My friends, I'll tell you -- it is the aural essence of serenity. It's like the most beautiful sounding ambient soundscape ever, tied to an amazing pop song. It's calm. Soothing. There are dobros. And Miranda's amazing voice. And dreamy slide guitars. Folks, above all else, THIS is the reason I enjoy this album so much. A good half of it consists of dreamy ballads that exhibit this exact sound, and it it's absolutely glorious. Of course, you may not find it as amazing as I do, but...oh goodness, I love it.
       But still, despite the sound, "Airstream Song" is only two minutes long. Plus, it's a bit upbeat, so it isn't quite as beautiful and cathartic as it possibly could be. Nope, for that, you'll need to listen to the next song, the album's magnum opus -- "Makin' Plans". It's just a nice little acoustic ballad for the first half. Of course, since it uses that "Revolution sound", it's still great, but it isn't until the second half when it really gets amazing. Yup, it's just a minute and a half of organs, tip-tap-y percussion, dreamy electric guitar tone, the prettiest slide guitar you've ever heard, and a MOOD LIKE NO OTHER. Brilliance.
       And speaking of acoustic ballads, there's also the infamous "The House That Built Me". The mood isn't quite up there with "Makin' Plans", but man, is it close. It's just Miranda and a single acoustic guitar, and from there it's just her reminiscing about the house she grew up in to one of the prettiest country melodies I've ever heard. And then that good 'ol "Revolution sound" kicks in, and hoo'll bring tears to your eyes. Call it capitalizing on people's childhood memories if you wish, but to my ears, it sounds completely genuine. 
       Tired of ballads? Alrighty then -- you've got the creepy, rocking "Sin for a Sin", the snide "Only Prettier", and the punkish energy of "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round". And if you're not tired of ballads, you've got the closing "Virginia Bluebell", which is just as beautiful and cathartic as anything else on here. 
       I want to give it a 13, but alas, it's still just a simple pop-country album from 2009, and one with some filler at that. Of course, in my mind it's a hard 13, but for an unbiased's just a 12. A very high, extremely strong 12. But a 12 nonetheless. If you have even a passing interest in modern country, you really have to hear this. If you don't have an interest in the It probably won't convert you. But is most certainly an emotional force to be reckoned with, and it's definitely one of my personal favorites.

Hell on Heels (Pistol Annies) [2011]
Rating: 11
"And I was wearing beige"
Best Song: Beige
Worst Song: Trailer for Rent

       After Revolution, Miranda decided to round up two of her songwriting buddies, Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe, to help her create something of a supergroup: Pistol Annies. So, what do they sound like? a slightly more retro version of a typical Lambert album, but with amazing harmonies. 
       And as you would expect, it works out fantastically. It's not quite a classic, but as far as modern, mainstream country goes, it's absolutely aces. All the girls are absolutely amazing singers, no doubt about it, and all of the songs are pretty great, too. This is a really solid album.
       My favorite of the three is definitely Ashley Monroe; she has this great, delicate croon, almost reminiscent of early Dolly Parton. Of course, Miranda sounds great, per usual, and the other girl, Angeleena Presley, is no slouch herself. But while they all sound fine apart, it's when they put their voices together that the real magic happens. The harmonies are consistently brilliant, and often goosebump-inducing. They're really, REALLY good.
       But voices can only help so much! No, to make a truly great album, one needs some brilliant songs as well. And while I wouldn't call all of these brilliant, they are definitely all at least decent, and at times, quite excellent. Take my favorite of the album, "Beige", for example. It's a gorgeous ballad that has Ashley singing this AMAZING vocal melody throughout, not to mention the breathtaking harmonies. Oh, and yes, being as it is a ballad, there is indeed a great deal of similarity here to that "Revolution sound" that I love so much. Dreamy slide guitars, soft percussion, swirling organs -- yup, it's all here. And the lyrics, telling of an unhappy shotgun marriage, are quite genius as well...albeit a bit depressing. 
       And if it's depressing that you want, take a listen to "Housewife's Prayer"! It's a starkly produced number sung by Angeleena, but to truly get the effect, I'll quote you some of the lyrics. The song opens with the cheery verse of "I've been thinking about setting my house on fire / Can't see a way out of the mess I'm in and the bills keep getting higher / All I need is a gallon of gas / God, I'm getting tired / Gonna set this house on fire"! And if that's still too happy for you, take a look at the third verse: "I've been thinking about all the pills I'm taking / I wash them down with an ice cold beer and the love I ain't been making / I feel like I'm burning up with words I ain't been saying / And all these pills I'm taking". Add in the eerie production and the haunting harmonies and you get yourself one heck of a song! Of course, it'd help if it wasn't just two and a half minutes long...but I digress. Still a pretty amazing tune.
       Speaking of short lengths, that's probably my biggest problem with the album -- it's got ten tracks, and it's just barely over a half an hour long. Geez! Radiohead has made EP's that are longer than that!!
       And you'd think that with such a short length, it'd be a trim, filler-less affair -- an album with nothing but ten winners. But sadly, that's not the case. The sleepy "Boys from the South" and the limp "Trailer for Rent" are both decent, but still...with such a short album coming from a group with three of the best songwriters in Nashville, there should be nothing but fantastic material here. And that's just not the case.
       And that's that. Sure, there are plenty of other excellent songs here ("Lemon Drop", "Bad Example", and the slinky "Family Feud" come to mind), but I think you get the point -- simple, no frills country music done very well. If you have any interest in classic female country artists such as Loretta Lynn, I would definitely point you here -- this stuff sounds straight out of the mid-60s. So yes -- despite the god-awful album title and band name, this group definitely knows what they're doing. Now if they'd only stretch their material out a bit...
Four the Record (2011)
Rating: 11
"I had to shake it off, but I got stuck / Oh my god"
Best Song: Fine, it's Look at Miss Ohio
Worst Song: Safe

       To best describe this album, I think I'll make a slight arrangement to my opening statement back in the introduction: say what you will about Four the Record, but you can't deny one thing -- it's at the very least interesting. It has Miranda at both her most experimental and her most commercial, and it even does a great deal of attempting to combine the two. Take "Fastest Girl in Town", for example. Yes, the inane lyrics bring that dumb "bad girl" thing back to the forefront, this time doing it in an even more eye-roll inducing way than before. Lowlights include "Let's go to town for a little while / I'll be wearing nothing but a tattoo and a smile", "I heard your '65 could really haul some ass", and (referring to a policeman) "If he pulls us over, I'll turn on the charm / You'll be in the slammer and I'll be on his arm". Ugggggggh. But all of that aside, the song also features some of the most interesting and edgy guitar work yet heard on a Lambert track, plus a very odd, chorus-less song structure. I'm not a major fan of the song, but there are at least some positive aspects at work here.
       The biggest flaw I see here is most definitely the lyrics. Where are the creative metaphors and witty turnarounds of "Dead Flowers" and "Only Prettier", eh? EH?!?! No, instead we get divine chestnuts like "Mid-Febuary shouldn't be so scary / It was only December, I still remember" and lengthy, U2-influenced choruses that consist of nothing but a repetition of the lines "With you I'm safe, with you I'm safe". Yikes. Oh, and if you're wondering if there are any clever metaphors on here, the answer is definitely "Well, there are metaphors, but...they're not too hot". Yup, the excellently-produced and awesome-sounding "Baggage Claim" is nearly ruined by a worthless vocal melody in the verses, and an extended metaphor that tries REALLY REALLY hard to be clever, but just comes across as stupid and confusing. Whoops. (By the way, every track that I just mentioned as being lyrically weak was indeed written [at least partly] by Lambert)
       But not everything's bad! No, "Mama's Broken Heart" is actually really good! Great vocal melody! Cool guitar noises and spaghetti-western sounding riffs! Clever lyrics! (Not written by Miranda!) Catchy, thrashing chorus! Ominous backup singers! It's not remotely country, but hey, I like it! 
       Another winner that's also not country, not written by Lambert, and well-liked by me is the AMAZING "Fine Tune". The first time I heard this thing I essentially had a freak-out. You would NEVER expect to hear anything resembling this on a country album. Never. So what does it sound like? Well, just listen to that intro! Weird guitar noises and a banging drum fill that leads to this big *CRASH*, out of which a loose, fuzzed-out groove emerges. And then Lambert starts laughing all sultry-like, that a...vocal filter?!?!?!? That's right, kiddies, good 'ol Miranda decided to throw in an indie-rock vocal filter for her to sing through, and wow...she sounds like a female, sultry-as-heck version of freakin' Julian Casablancas circa Is This It!!! She sounds good! Real good!
       Throw in the crunchy, stereo-panning guitar riff and some of the most ridiculous car-related double entendres ever (how did I forget to mention this when I was talking about metaphors?!?), and you get one heck of a song, even if the vocal melody itself isn't the best thing in the world. Plus, isn't that moment when Miranda says "I had to shake it off, but I got stuck / Oh my God" the most awesome-sounding thing you've ever heard? So much coolness in one little song.       
     And there's still some of that trust 'ol "Revolution sound" on here too! "Look at Miss Ohio" uses the formula at its most basic level (ethereal slide guitars, soft percussion, know the drill) and then adds heavenly vocal harmonies and an amazing, dreamy melody to AMAZING effect. It's really repetitive over the course of its four minutes, and as such it gets this sort of trance-like, pseudo-ambient effect going on and...yeah, it's a keeper. And don't forget that awesome, gentle electric guitar line that just sorta solos quietly for the whole song, throwing in tasty licks here and there. Mmm.
       The closing "Oklahoma Sky" goes for a similar thing, and while not quite as successful, it still definitely works. Miranda didn't write the lyrics, but you can definitely tell that she feels like she has; you'd be hard-pressed to find a more earnest reading of a pre-written song. Of course, the production doesn't hurt, get the idea.
       "Easy Living" tries to do the whole "back porch, backwoods jam session" thing that so many artists seem to be doing these days (Eric Church, Jamey Johnson), and it's alright. The radio sounds are kind of a neat, Pink Floyd-y touch, I guess, but the piece doesn't excite me much. Same goes for the gentle, retro "Same Old You". It wouldn't feel out of place on Hell on Heels, but it's still just a bit too sleepy for my taste...even if the "You can keep your ring, and I'll keep my Daddy's name" line is a pretty neat moment.
       If you like Revolution, you should definitely pick this up. I don't *love* it, but again, it's an extremely interesting piece of work, one that shows that Lambert is definitely growing as an artist. She's at a very, VERY important crossroads here -- does she go alt-country and make art for the sake of art, or does she decide to go ahead and fall headfirst into the land of pop the way that Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have done. Only time will tell.

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