When Kentucky raised singer/songwriter Angaleena Presley got a midnight phone call from Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert, devising a plan to start a new all-girl country band, she wasn’t sure if the two were serious. Ashley, originally from Tennessee, was the mutual friend between Angaleena and Texan Miranda, and the late night invitation worked to bring all three together for writing sessions. What formed was the rough and rowdy Pistol Annies, and what was produced is a compelling, gritty and uncompromising group of 10 songs appropriately titled Hell On Heels.
Working with producer Frank Liddell, who produced all three of Miranda’s solo albums, the overall sound of Hell On Heels is rooted in straight up, traditional country. The songs are mostly acoustic-based with a touch of reverb-heavy lead guitar and pedal steel weaving throughout the record. Lyrically, touching on such themes as drowning in debt, shotgun weddings and looking out for number one, the album is unflinchingly honest in its approach.
I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire, Angaleena sings on the beautifully tragic “Housewife’s Prayer,” where Ashley and Miranda join in harmony near the end of the line. The melody rises like flames over a midtempo sonic pulse, and the vocal delivery captures the moment of cold consideration on whether or not literally burning down the house for the insurance payoff is the way to go. On the uptempo “Bad Example,” the trio sings in three-part harmony, Somebody had to set a bad example/ Teach all the prim and propers what not to do, before the character defiantly upholds being a rambler and third generation bartender.
Miranda, Angaleena and Ashley take turns singing lead vocals throughout the album, each one of them adding their own inflection, tone and style to the songs. Ashley takes the lead on “Beige,” a slow, ¾-time ballad with a melancholy melody about a teenage couple getting married after getting pregnant. We didn’t take no honeymoon/ With what we’d got ourselves into/ A quick I do and then/ Back home again, she sings in her thick southern drawl with the sadness of knowing this is not the wedding the lead character dreamed about. On “Trailer For Rent,” Miranda sings in her don’t-mess-with-me-tone, Trailer for rent, no down payment/ Comes with some holes and dents where I got tired of putting up with a no-good husband (note that Miranda doesn’t quite put the husband’s ways so nicely). It’s this vivid storytelling and no nonsense delivery that makes Hell On Heels such a compelling listen.
On tracks like the rowdy, uptempo road song “Takin’ Pills” and the album’s first single “Hell On Heels,” Pistol Annies displays rich harmonies as their individual voices blend together. The slow, burning “Hell On Heels” opens the album with a declaration in harmony, I’m hell on heels, say what you will/ I done made the devil a deal, before each takes turns with the lines, He made me pretty/ He made me smart/ And I’m gonna break me a million hearts. The song doesn’t fit standard verse-chorus-verse structure as it moves from chorus into three straight verses and finishes with the chorus. Going beyond the hard hitting lyrics, the willingness to take adventurous chances in all areas creates a unique feel and exciting atmosphere.
Handling all the songwriting themselves (with the exception of one co-write from Blake Shelton on the warring “Family Feud”), the counter-culture tales on Hell On Heels are the result of three fiery and immensely talented songwriters coming together on a mission. Pistol Annies may be a side project of hard-luck songs, but the real tragedy is if this set of stories doesn’t have a sequel.