Miranda Lambert, Platinum (RCA Nashville)
Just because 2/3 of the Pistol Annies have been responsible for the best country albums of both 2013 and (right, ‘so far’) 2014 doesn’t mean we enthusiasts have narrowed our scope. On the contrary, Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose and Miranda Lambert’s Platinum present markedly distinct pleasures. If Monroe’s precise nine-song offering barely broke thirty minutes, Lambert’s sixteen song whirlwind elbows aside an entire hour. And while the former applied formalist delicacy whether her narrators were robbing banks or getting kinky, the latter bursts forth with glorious intemperance, outgunning the competition via belly laughs and boasts - “by calculation, I’m way too much”. So she prances like David Lee Roth through the backyard swagger of “Little Red Wagon,” runs Tom T. Hall through Bob Wills on “All That’s Left,” brags like Kanye about her box office on the title cut, and gets downright “Strawberry Fields Forever”-trippy on “Two Rings Shy”. Yet lest you think this mere Nashville flash, our stealth progressive also delivers sisterhood blows against the empire, whether skipping Sunday services for a cold one or sticking tongues out at the patriarchy: only those recycling dumb blonde jokes will mistake “just go one shade lighter / you’ll acquire everything you need” for career advice. And in between tales of the perfidy of men, Lambert fairly aces a Music Row Bechdel Test, women talking to women about drink, kitchen sinks, and education taking the hit when your health insurance won’t cover The Pill. This is how you have it all - by fulfilling the schmaltzy code quota for one part of your audience (sepia-toned “Automatic”) before immediately addressing those same luddite fantasies with greater sass for another part of your audience (Opry-unfriendly “Old Shit”).
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, What Have We Become? (Virgin EMI)
Turns out The Beautiful South’s fortunes were more tied to Jacqui Abbott’s presence than anyone suspected, no doubt including Paul Heaton and even Jacqui herself. But while it’s lovely to once again hear those voices intertwine, a proudly non-imbibing Heaton at times trades in barbed observance for mere crankiness. The question posed by the title tune comes courtesy of an English mother addressing her “half-ton son,” some Soft New Britain where “pizza boxes block out the sun” and “chicken wings have replaced all the fun” - rather pat protests from the Christian Marxist who once identified the loss of a nation’s soul within postmodern architecture. But Heaton’s vision of one man’s England still registers the pain of fading ‘go home’ graffiti scrawled outside tenement flats, racism blues he effectively chases away with soul-inflected doo-doo doo-doo’s. Soul of a sort remains the key musical touchstone, from opening Martha & the Vandellas rattle to closing doo-wop shuffle “When I Get Back To Blighty”. And despite all the grousing about fatty foodstuffs, Heaton and Abbott still find plenty of appropriate targets, from the Queen herself to those identified as prisoners of their own tax returns. Of course, Heaton/Abbott are funnier about it: “Everyone around us agrees that / Phil Collins must die / Phil Collins must die”.
The most obvious points of comparison for this Dundalk anti-folk songpoet are such inspired Northern gobbers as Mark E. Smith and John Cooper Clarke, yet don’t let that fool you - where both Smith and Clarke at times bask in logorrhea, Lennon worries insistently and rhythmically over repetitive phrases, occasionally lapsing into gobbledegook because sometimes the sentiments call for a little barbaric yawp. Although he’s dropped numerous albums since this recently re-released 2006 outing, here’s where he shows off what he can do. Whether collapsing pub singalongs into “7 and 7 Is” (“Fireplace-Itis”) or spewing “the city of styrofoam cups” like punctuation, his twenty fragments sidle along unkemptly and with great musical variety, always suggesting something worth considering. Horn-bolstered “Stand Up For Your Hospitals” is his idea of a punk rallying cry. “What’s wrong with some colour in the street?” is how he confronts some anti-Nigerian bollocks. And while Lennon’s well aware that the circle of shit awaits us all, he can’t help but preach the gospel of working class magnanimity. He calls that one “Forgive The Cunts”.