Ashley Monroe, Like A Rose (Warner Brothers)
Nine songs, thirty-one minutes, opening line “I was only thirteen when daddy died” - hoo-boy, does this look like Nashville product. Only that line about family tragedy is autobiographical, and that realization lends itself to every non-autobiographical story this Pistol Annie relates. Comfortably gliding across Vince Gill’s unshowy production, Monroe imparts a personality that’s equal parts sweet and saucy, especially on the mildly risqué “Weed Instead Of Roses,” in which polaroid cameras and whipped cream get called up for sagging-sex-life duty along with herbal supplements growing in a no-good brother’s back yard. But while that song deserves its attention, that’s hardly the only time Monroe speaks politely outside the standard perimeters of c&w narrative orthodoxy. Note dents and bruises that might not be figurative, a newly-single expectant mother good-humoredly figuring she’s “the talk of this town,” or a diatribe against the minimum wage that ends with a stolen pickup blowing through Tulsa. And her eye for lust goes beyond suburban kink - great sex / bad relationship chronicle “You Got Me” finds a sleeping protagonist waking up so hot and bothered she straddles her partner until she has enough. Yet only a cultural elite would assume CMT audiences will be scandalized by Monroe’s familiar details, unless you think she tossed in that line about Fifty Shades Of Grey because she figured nobody would get the reference. Operating calmly within the tradition, singing directly about the lives folks lead, she’s crafted the first great song cycle of this year. Extra points for a title reminding us why we love Nashville product: “She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind”.
The Mavericks, In Time (Valory)
Activists on the lookout for rockism should take note. Why is it that when a merry band of Brooklynites add “tribal” drums to their studious mess they find themselves dubbed world citizens? Yet allow a Cuban-American outfit from a working port city to fold Tex-Mex, polka, ska, tango, and mambo into their c&w program, and armchair musicologists sniff drily about roots rock anonymity and impressing the yokels. Back in 1994, this group stuck out from the new country pack because their honky tonk owed much to rockabilly and Roy Orbison. A ten-year layoff hasn’t done much to upset that balance - any time Raul Malo stands near a microphone, Orbison’s presence will be indelible. Still, Malo and co. have upped the melodramatic flourishes even as they’ve diversified their rhythmic cache, whether they’re doing the Bacharach cha-cha-cha on “Fall Apart” or channeling Johnny Mathis throughout eight-minute handkerchief-wringer “(Call Me) When You Get To Heaven”. That penultimate number may prove too florid for ironists conditioned to look away when emotions bubble over. But it’s just one more way a seasoned band keeps an audience on their literal toes throughout a long set. And for those questioning this troop’s lack of a formal philosophy, consider the following directive: “as long as there’s loving tonight / I’m hers for the rest of my life”.
Caitlin Rose, The Stand-In (ATO)
These ludicrous comparisons to Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline must stop - can’t a sugary-voiced gal cover the Pernice Brothers and write a couple decent indiepolitan tunes without having Nashville royalty sacrificed at her feet? And gorgeous indie pop is what Ms. Rose has on offer, no matter the mandolins or pedal steel embellishing her catchy choruses, be they paeans to Tom Petty (“Silver Sings”) and Fleetwood Mac (“When I’m Gone”), laments for radio programming (“No One To Call”), or just classic one-two-three songwriting (“Only A Clown”). Good as that tune is, the choicest cut might well be deliberate throwback “Golden Boy,” a prom night ballad worthy of Brenda Lee or even Rosie and the Originals. But please note I’m not comparing Ms. Rose to Ms. Lee or Ms. Rosie.
Tracks: “Only A Clown,” Golden Boy,” “When I’m Gone”
Madeleine Peyroux, The Blue Room (Decca / Emarcy)
Having mastered Billie Holiday’s phrasing while retaining none of Lady Day’s grit, ache, or sass, a pleasant jazz vocalist highlights five songs from Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music while rifling amongst the product of several more contemporary North American songwriters. Of these latter-day tracks, her “Bird On A Wire” is one of too many versions already in existence, while seven slow minutes of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind” finds the singer lovingly running her fingers over every word even though I thought the idea was always to rush past the silly verbiage posthaste. But Peyroux knows what to do with Warren Zevon and Randy Newman - she predicts that motel will be standing and gets some cocaine from a friend with studied cool.
Tracks: “Guilty,” “Desperadoes Under The Eaves”
Eric Clapton, Old Sock (Bushbranch)
There’s something slightly charming about a sixty-seven year old guitar master shrugging the instrument from his shoulders and deploying laid-back pipes to twelve mid-tempo shuffles he seemingly picked out of a drawer, ten of them covers, two of them outsourced to songwriting team Doyle Bramhall II/Nikki Costa/Justin Stanley, with not a single Clapton writing credit in sight. But there’s also something kind of gross about it, too, from the kiddie chorus tacked onto the end of “Every Little Thing” to the way Slowhand mugs with Paul McCartney through “All Of Me” to the goddam J.J. Cale number. His reggae touch remains uniquely sweet, and there’s a karaoke vibe to the tossed-off “Goodnight Irene” that’s rather endearing. But this is an album he made for himself - the world was not clamoring for Eric Clapton’s rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay” or Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”. If you recall, that latter tune claims definitive versions by Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee, neither of whom need be worried.
Tracks: “Further On Down The Road”
Shooter Jennings, Other Life (eOne)
I’d hoped to put this bozo out to pasture, where he could pick fights with Jason Aldean and croon constipated duets with Big Jim Dandy (that’s right, Black Oak Arkansas) to his sentimental heart’s content. But a song as rank as “Outlaw You” deserves some kind of parsing. A garrulous tribute to the outlaw mythos, it takes aim at pretty boys in baseball caps who “name drop poor Hank” and “sing another man’s song with a big drum loop”. Rather brave words from somebody who drawled “if I learned one thing about Hank / it’s that him and his kid like to drink” twelve fucking minutes earlier and sang another man’s forty-year-old song one track after that. But Shooter needn’t follow his own clumsily-compiled manifesto, not when he’s plodding in the footsteps of giants, namely his abolitionist dad: “those old boys with long hair and braids / stayed true to their sound and freed the slaves”. And our wily brigand has crafted the perfect offensive line against all those pretty boys: “they should outlaw you!”