x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pistol Annies and Sunny Sweeney: soundtracks for the recession

Hell on Heels might be one of the great albums of the recession, while Sunny Sweeney's Concrete is populated by the disaffected and dysfunctional.

"I've been thinking about settin' my house on fire," Angaleena Presley intones wearily at the start of Housewife's Prayer. As opening lines go, few can rival its effectiveness.

This kind of craft is evident all over Hell On Heels, the debut album from the country "girl group" Pistol Annies - the latest project from Miranda Lambert, one of the finest contemporary country artists of the past decade, and her less well-known cohorts Presley and Ashley Monroe.

It's a format that enables the trio to play with the genre's storytelling traditions in an almost theatrical manner, and their songs are populated with larger-than-life character sketches of third-generation bartenders and dysfunctional families. They also turn around and, out of nowhere, bruise the listener with their bleak perspective.

Lambert has long exemplified many of the parallels that exist between country and rap, the folk musics of working-class rural white and urban black America respectively. Her songs are populated by ordinary outlaws: protagonists located in recognisable circumstances, whose concerns are guns, God and simply surviving the strife of small-town life. They also aren't averse to solving their problems with violence.

On Lambert's best-known hit, Gunpowder And Lead, the song's heroine prepares to murder an abusive husband fresh out of jail. It's not just the way Lambert glories in the moment of violence that's so reminiscent of gangsta rap, but her command of language and rhythm: "Well, it's half-past ten / Another six-pack in / I can feel the rumble like a cold, black wind / He pulls in the drive / Gravel flies / He don't know what's waitin' here this time."

Equally formidable are the heroines of Hell On Heels' title track: femmes fatales who clean out every man they come across, leaving a trail of broken hearts and empty bank accounts behind them - an echo, in its way, of rappers such as Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown and Trina. In truth, Hell On Heels is a slow burn of a song. Presley opens, her voice sweet and clear and ever-so-slightly demure. Lambert is next, her voice ripping through the song like paintstripper. Finally, the unhinged waver in Monroe's voice conveys the inherent craziness in the gold digger's monomaniacal focus. "I done made the Devil a deal," they vamp together on the chorus.

Hell On Heels turns out to be one of the finest, most relevant recession albums yet, documenting vignettes of poverty-stricken "red state" America with a carefully detailed precision. Housewife's Prayer is the most devastating example of this, a portrait of a woman on the verge of being crushed under the pressure of unpaid bills and prescription pills. Its craft is surgical, every line slowly taking its narrator one step closer to the last straw: "I've been thinkin' about all these pills I'm takin' / I'll wash 'em down with an ice-cold beer and the love I ain't been makin'," sings Monroe on the final verse.

If anything defines the society Pistol Annies depict, it's a refusal to be ground down by life: Takin' Pills follows Housewife's Prayer, and holds a mirror up to it. Its narrators owe money they don't have, too, but merely respond with rollicking riffs and a defiant middle digit raised to the world.

The contrast is revealing: the protagonist of Housewife's Prayer hasn't been driven to the edge of sanity by the toughness of life, rather, but rather by the unspoken pressure of living up to a traditional feminine ideal - a concept that Lambert has spent her career puncturing, and which the women of Takin' Pills briskly reject: "Well, we ain't ashamed of who we are / We like fast men and cheap guitars."

Thus, Hell On Heels finds them taking ownership of their lives even, especially when they don't conform to social convention or live up to expectations.

Lemon Drop uses bitter candy with a sweet centre as a sharp metaphor for a life secured on unsecured credit. And in Bad Example, the narrator finds a kind of low-key liberation in a life on the margins, too poor to go to college and instead "living from a tip jar week to week". Indeed, the shrug of the shoulders with which she assesses her life could be the Pistol Annies' manifesto: "Somebody had to set a bad example / Teach all the prim'n'propers what not to do ... What the hell, that's what I was born to do."

***

Texan singer-songwriter Sunny Sweeney is a newer face in country than Lambert, but her creatively and commercial awakening this year has also been marked by a rejection of convention.

On her breakthrough hit, From A Table Away, Sweeney sings from the perspective of a mistress who catches sight of her lover and his wife enjoying a romantic dinner and, indeed, the moment when her world comes crashing down: "I guess that means that things are better; it must not be so bad at home."

It's a sympathetic, nuanced portrait and what sticks with you is the generosity she bestows on her rival ("I thought she was pretty, she's nothing like the things you said"). In the end, the listener identifies with Sweeney's narrator.

This may have outraged the sensibilities of some country fans, but on Sweeney's second album, Concrete - comprising the five songs on her acclaimed eponymous EP, released in January, along with five new cuts - she continues to display an affinity with those characters most harshly judged by small-town society. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that much of it was written in the wake of her own messy divorce. We meet the wife steeling herself to abandon a loveless marriage on Staying's Worse Than Leaving; "I don't care who passes judgment on my reasons," Sweeney sings, pre-empting the inevitable meanness in the guise of morality.

Meanwhile, on Amy, Sweeney returns to giving a voice to the other woman. It's a song that could function as a response of sorts to Dolly Parton's classic Jolene, right from its brilliant opening line: "Amy, please let me explain: I'm only half of what's causing all your pain". The narrator pleads first for forgiveness, but within two lines begins picking her way through explanation and blame: "He needed love he never got from you." As it becomes clear that she still loves this man who has gone back to his wife, the narrator finds herself caught between expressing her own feelings and the knowledge that sympathy and self-pity will be given short shrift, eventually concluding wearily, "Amy, I'm just trying to explain."

Ultimately, "just trying to explain" is what underpins both these albums. For Sweeney, Lambert, Monroe and Presley, songcraft is, like singing or playing an instrument, a skill that has to be mastered and honed - and their songwriting has tightened to the highest possible standard.

Indeed, in their depictions of the messy underbelly of the rural working-class, both Pistol Annies and Sunny Sweeney articulate the story and condition of contemporary America.

Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.