When the all-girl trio Pistol Annies– made up of Miranda Lambert (aka “Lone Star Annie”), Ashley Monroe (“Hippie Annie”) and Angaleena Presley (“Holler Annie”) – released their gritty 2011 debut, Hell On Heels, the collaboration was initially thought of more as a side project. Yet, given the girls’ uncanny chemistry and gift for captivating realism, it was obvious that the group was more than just a one-off. Next week on May 7, Pistol Annies return with their follow up, Annie Up, a 12-round blast signaling that these three Annies are just getting started.
It’s hard to argue that Hell On Heels wasn’t a fantastic record (just ask Neil Young and John Fogerty – both of whom are fans), however, the difference this time around is that Miranda, Ashley and Angaleena seem to be finding their identity as a true ensemble – not just three excellent songwriters getting together for a great time. Even their nicknames point to an increasing ease as they settle into their roles as part of the band. And interestingly, Annie Up itself dives into new themes with a heavy emphasis on image.
At least one Annie had a hand in writing each of the album’s songs, and like its predecessor, the album is full of raw production and quick-witted, insightful lyrics. Through distorted country blues, Angaleena starts up the lead single, “Hush Hush,” in a smoky drawl with a verse about trying to push family skeletons back in the closet. The ultra-traditional, ¾-time, “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” follows suit with lines like, I ain’t good with fake lashes, every time I wear high heels I fall, to describe how uncomfortable it can be trying to live up to misguided expectations. And on “Girls Like Us,” they’re not afraid to tell it like it is, singing almost solemnly, I’ll get drunk and carried away, before Miranda wraps the song’s tough chorus in a loose sway.
The group harmonies on Annie Up spotlight a growing familiarity between the girls as they stretch from warm support to intricate orchestrations. The Miranda-led “Unhappily Married” rips into a huge chorus before a perfectly uneven interlude matches the story’s rocky relationship and a set of give and take melodies closes it out. The three-part harmony of “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story” is optimistic and heartfelt, and the downright heartbreaking, “Blues, You’re A Buzz Kill,” with Ashley on lead vocals, displays intricate voices that play comfortably off one another. Diving into Americana, “Trading One Heartbreak For Another,” builds a web of tender melodies that holds tight and just won’t let go. With a sound like Loretta Lynn backed by Buddy Miller, it’s nothing short of captivating.
Annie Up has its tender spots, but it’s amazing how tough the trio can sound whenever they want. The swampy opener, “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On,” carries a sexy swagger with complete control and the Mississippi blues, “Loved By A Workin’ Man,” is powered by a confidence that matches the song’s rough-around-the-edges feel. Tough as nails or sweet as sugar – and sometimes deceptively so – the performances are dynamic.
At all times, there’s a sense that Pistol Annies can’t be anything other than 100% truthful. “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina” calls for doubles at the bar and the rockabilly influenced, “Damn Thing,” makes it known trying to change is a lost cause. Unafraid to take on darker subjects, “Dear Sobriety” offers an unflinching look at alcoholism where, every last drop I say is the last. The world around us isn’t always pretty, but the unfiltered and honest approach to Annie Up is as refreshing as it was the first time, as the trio appears to just be getting better.
Key Tracks – “Hush Hush,” “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On,” “Trading One Heartbreak For Another,” “Girls Like Us”