Album Review: Angaleena Presley–Wrangled

Rating: 10/10

Wrangled is an explicitly forthright journey through my experience in the business of Country Music. I tried to tackle uncomfortable realities like the discrimination against female artists at the height of Bro-Country, the high school mentality of Music Row and the pain that’s just beneath the surface of the road to stardom

These words came from Angaleena Presley ahead of her second album, and they serve better than any introduction I could hope to write. Wrangled lives up to that description from the opening track, “Dreams Don’t Come True.” Written with fellow former Pistol Annies Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, it delivers this message in a matter-of-fact way and even advises us, “don’t let anyone tell you they do.” It’s that straightforward honesty coming through to shatter your dreams on the opening track that makes you listen to, an believe, Angaleena Presley throughout the record. After all, who is going to tell you your dreams won’t come true, that you’ll end up pregnant instead of selling hit records? That’s a truth our friends and family would be even, and perhaps especially, hard-pressed to give us. But there’s something about the unapologetic way Angaleena broadcasts that truth, and right there at the start of her record, that makes you take notice and respect what she has to say–it might be brutal, but she damn sure won’t lie, and there’s a refreshing quality in that which can only come from such authenticity as this.

I said Presley’s honesty makes you respect what she has to say, and it turns out she has to say quite a lot. “High school” tells of the harsh realities of getting through each day in high school, and based on the quote above, I have to wonder if this is also directed at Music Row. Either way, I have to say this would have been a hell of a lot more helpful to have heard in high school than most of the mainstream music marketed to today’s youth. Other tracks are more obviously commenting on Music Row and the struggles in the business. “Groundswell” details Angaleena’s travels from Georgia to Kentucky to Alabama as she tries to make enough to support herself. “Outlaw” feels like this song’s antithesis; here, Presley sings, “It’s too hard to live this way” and says the money would be easier if she weren’t an “outlaw” and a “renegade.” You get the feeling listening that if she could change herself, she might conform, but she knows that it would be impossible, and she can’t be something she’s not.

The most blatant protest of Music Row is “Country,” and I can’t believe I even have to explain this in detail, but after reading the barrage of SCM comments misunderstanding and flat-out hating this, it seems apparent that I must. It’s hard to explain without listening, and I’ll post the video, but obviously it can’t stand alone, so I’ll say that the distortion is purposeful. The name-checking of every bro country reference in the verses and the hook devoid of any actual words is purposeful. And the killer rap verse added by Yelawolf name-dropping Sturgill and telling Music Row to “fuckin’ save it” is not only purposeful, it’s genius and adds to the parody. By all means, hate this song, but at least take the time to understand what it is before you decide it sounds like crap, as that was part of the point, and the song is all the better for it.

Angaleena Presley also said she wanted to discuss the discrimination against female artists. This is done in a more subtle way–there’s not really a track dealing with that specifically, but there are certainly many that speak to the female perspective and address the unique realities faced by women. The crown jewel of the album is the title track, where the narrator feels “wrangled” by her life and by her husband. It’s very nice melodically, an the lyrics are some of the best on the whole thing–“girls down at church can go to hell. Ironing shirts and keeping babies quiet ain’t no life, it’s a livin’ jail.” As much as I hate to pick a track off this fantastic album, if you must choose one, make it “Wrangled.” As the album progresses, Presley’s irritation only seems to grow; on “Wrangled,” the woman portrayed is tired of her life and resentful of the women around her who seem to enjoy it. That frustration comes out in “Bless my Heart,” where she casually informs any woman who is content to backstab others for their own gain, “If you bless my heart, I’ll slap your face.” There’s more of that frustration on “Mama I Tried,” another highlight of the record, as the main character laments that despite everything she did, she couldn’t be the lady her mother wanted–“always a bridesmaid, never the bride.” And finally, that pent-up frustration comes spilling out in anger on “Good Girl Down,” co-written with Wanda Jackson–“It’s a man’s world, and I’m a lady, and they’ll never appreciate me. They don’t take the time to get to know who I am, frankly, boys, I don’t give a damn.”

Yes, we do have a Miranda Lambert-esque song, “only Blood,” where the narrator marries a preacher who abuses her, and yes, she kills him. There have been a lot of songs like this certainly, but I do feel this one stands out some because it is built around the line “only blood can set you free” and serves a double purpose of exposing the hypocrisy in the church. “Motel Bible” does this in a much more understated and fun way to close the record–“God don’t give a damn how I’m dressed.”

But Angaleena Presley is not always angry or discouraged on this album; in fact, “Cheer up Little Darling,” written with Guy Clark, expresses a hope seen rarely on Wrangled, and in doing so, it completes the record; “It feels like a tight spot, but it’s just a loose end.”

This album lived up to everything Angaleena Presley advertised it to be, and for the honesty and songwriting alone, it deserves the highest praise. It’s the second ten of 2017, and it has earned this rating for exactly the opposite reasons as Marty Stuart’s–that album was special musically, and this one is special because of the lyrics, the stories, and the emotions running throughout it. An honest, compelling album that gets better with each listen. Three chords and the truth.

Listen to Album

Memorable Songs From Forgettable Albums: April 24th

So, this is a semi-regular feature in which I highlight songs from albums that weren’t good enough to be praised or horrific enough to warrant a rant, albums where we feel we would benefit the artist and serve the music more by isolating certain tracks, and sometimes albums we simply didn’t have anything to say about but still felt deserved some attention. It’s a fun way to highlight more music and save us the time of writing–and you the time of reading–reviews we weren’t passionate about. This feature will appear whenever enough songs are sliding through the cracks to produce one.

RaeLynn: “Love Triangle”

This is the one many of you will know, as it was the single off her recently released album. I’ve been one of RaeLynn’s biggest critics in the past–although, ironically, not on Country exclusive–but this song about the “Love triangle” between a daughter and her divorced parents that is autobiographical to RaeLynn is pop country done right and the kind of song we should be championing on radio. the youth listening to country radio today need real songs like this–and when RaeLynn’s being herself, her vocal quality also improves.

RaeLynn: “Diamonds”

RaeLynn’s WildHorse is mostly a pop album–and not a great one–but this one stands out as a nice pop song and would be a nice single choice, explaining how diamonds mean nothing unless they come with the right person and sentiment. It’s another one where you can see RaeLynn’s potential.

RaeLynn: “Praying For Rain”

Not much to say here, and they did overproduce it, but I can’t help enjoying this. It just feels like another, rare moment where Raelynn is being herself.

Trace Adkins: “Watered Down”

Man, what an all-around disappointing album from Trace. It wasn’t terrible, but it just felt like a wasted opportunity most of the way through. This song about coming to terms with his age stands out in a weird way on an album where mostly he’s not letting go, but on its own, it’s quite a fine listen, and he should do more stuff like this.

Trace Adkins: “Something’s Going On”

Ok, so the title track to Trace’s album starts out making you think the woman is cheating–she’s wearing her clothes tighter, her heels higher, and “something’s going on.” It ends up being a sex song, and yeah, it would have been better as a cheating song because the dark melody fits this. But it’s still a nice song, and Trace Adkins pulls this off rather well. And that melody is still just quite cool.

Trace Adkins: “Gonna Make You Miss Me”

Just catchy as all hell…sue me.

Caroline Spence: “Heart of Somebody”

Yeah, this one is just an album neither Brianna nor I could think of much to say about, but it seems to be getting overlooked by a lot of blogs, and there’s some fine songwriting here. If this album, Spades and Roses, gets reviewed, I’m probably giving it a 6/10–but it’s an unfair 6 because there were four songs I’d cherry-pick. The rest of the album was honestly really sleepy for me; style wise, Caroline’s a bit like Sam Outlaw, and where the quality of the writing doesn’t match the mood, the record can drag on. But don’t overlook her just because we couldn’t find any words. (Also, look, we’re giving an independent/folk/Americana album criticism.)

Caroline Spence: “All the Beds I’ve Made”

It occurs to me I didn’t really say what “Heart of Somebody” was about, and there, Caroline was dreaming to give her heart to someone; it seems here, she found someone in this nice love song.

Caroline Spence: “Softball”

The highlight of Spades and Roses, focusing on equality for women and how women can sometimes do the same things as men and it’s still seen as different; even if you’re hitting home runs and stealing bases, it’s called softball.

Caroline Spence: “Hotel Amarillo”

The only one on the album where Caroline deviates slightly from her sound; this one’s more folk rock and tells of her life on the road and missing those she loves.

Album Review: Jason Eady (self-titled)

Rating: 9/10

If there is one album I regret not being able to discuss from this platform, it is Jason Eady’s 2014 masterpiece Daylight and Dark. That year, everyone everywhere was giving sturgill Simpson album of the Year awards, but if Country Exclusive had existed, that distinction would have belonged to Eady and without question. I know this is quite an endorsement, but that record was better than any ten I have reviewed here to date, and if you haven’t listened to it, you are doing only yourself a disservice at the amount of stellar songwriting and true country music you’re missing. All that to say, how do you follow something like Daylight and Dark, and then, how do you give it a fair rating? Well, Jason Eady’s answer was this–to strip everything down and make an album that, aside from some steel guitar, could be played entirely without electricity. My answer was not so easy, but as I’ve listened, the beauty in these songs has spoken for itself in a way that does indeed follow Daylight and dark nicely, even if I couldn’t quite see it at first.

“Barabbas” may be one of the most brilliant instances of songwriting we’ve seen yet in 2017, and Jason eady opens the album with this. Of course it’s stripped down, but since the whole record is, this feels like a redundant point to continue making throughout the rest of the record. As for the lyrics, Eady tells the story of the pardoned man freed by the crucifixion of Jesus yet, aside from the title, never mentions Barabbas, Jesus, or anything religious, thereby making the song relatable and universal, a story for all but still holding a deeper connection for those of faith. “drive” was previously performed by the Trishas and written by Eady, Jamie Lin Wilson and Kelley Micwee, but this is an entirely different, more upbeat track; the song tells the story of someone driving away from an ex and letting go of the pain, “looking for a lighter shade of blue.” “Black Jesus” tells of the friendship formed long ago between a white man and a black man; the black man taught the white man the blues, and the white man taught him Hank and Willie Nelson. Now, years later, the white man sings about their friendship and how one day, they will meet again. The song does a good job explaining the message without being preachy; you get the point that we’re all the same in the eyes of God without it being spelled out, and the story told is better than sermon. We need stories like this more, especially in today’s culture. “NO genie in This Bottle” is your typical classic country drinking song, as Eady searches for answers to his life in a bottle. The steel guitar I mentioned before makes this song–oh yeah, that’s Lloyd Maines playing it, and also, that’s Vince Gill adding harmony. This song is very much a case of less is more, and hearing it will do much more than reading my words. “Why I Left Atlanta,” the lead single, is quite similar thematically to Drive.” If I had to pick a song on this record that didn’t stand out in the context of the album, it would ironically be this one, but that’s not much of a criticism when the rest of the album is this great.

“Rain” is a simple, upbeat little song; again, it could be religiously minded but isn’t necessarily, inviting the rain to come and cleanse him. Eady has a talent for calling to mind religious symbolism and imagery in a way that draws parallels for so many without alienating others. It’s good songwriting because so much more comes across in these words–again, less is more. Next, we have Eady’s version of “Where I’ve Been.” My favorite is still the duet from Something Together, but since Eady wrote this, a recording of it from him was long overdue. Credit to Eady and Courtney Patton for making each version quite unique, and credit to Eady for writing a song worthy of three separate versions because it’s just that damn special. “Waiting to Shine” is probably the most lighthearted moment on the record–I already reviewed this song, but basically it’s a song comparing words to diamonds “buried in the bottom of the coal just waiting to shine.” Jason states that “finders are keepers, and I’ll take all the keepers I can find.” For what it’s worth, that strategy paid off in spades on this album. The album closes with two personal songs for Eady; the first is “Not Too Loud,” a song about his daughter and watching her grow up, and the second about all the things he has learned after forty years. The beauty in both of these songs is twofold; they are obviously deeply personal and real for Jason Eady, and yet people everywhere will be able to relate to them both.

This record is one of those that jumps out on the first listen as a good, solid album. But then, as you dig deeper, and the songs begin to speak, and each unique, hidden, sneaky turn of phrase starts to hit you, the greatness of this album starts to shine through. And the fact that the record is stripped down, allowing for this kind of reflection and introspection, is part of the genius that allows these songs to grow. It’s a songwriter’s album, and yet it’s simple and relatable throughout. Add to all this, it’s nothing but country from start to finish, and you have another excellent album from Jason Eady.

Listen to Album

Single Review: Runaway June’s “Wild West”

Rating: 9/10

For those who haven’t yet met Runaway June, I invite and encourage you to check out their debut single “Lipstick,” which unfortunately didn’t perform well on the airplay charts but could have probably been a breakout hit for them a few years ago. Now the group, composed of Naomi Cooke, Jennifer Wayne, and Hannah Mulholland, are back with their second single, “Wild West,” and once again, they are bringing something different and promising to the mainstream.

“Wild West” is a nice love song where the woman invites her lover to “steal my heart like Jesse James” and, in a self-described tip of the hat to Jennifer’s grandfather, “come in guns blazing just like old John Wayne.” It’s the type of song a lot of people will be able to relate to, with a nice western theme that so many enjoy. Still, there’s some deceivingly deep imagery and metaphors in the lyrics too; “keep me by your side all night, hold me tight like a pearl-handle .45, and just let me be the whiskey on your breath, love me like the wild, wild, wild West.” There’s something understated in these lyrics that really brings out the romance in this song in a way that a lot of modern mainstream songs can’t get right–it’s either lost in a ridiculous barrage of pickup lines (any bro country anthem you want to insert), or encapsulated in some sort of needy, clingy, creepy sentiment (Brett Young, “Sleep Without You.”) There’s a subtlety in this that says more than the directness in many of today’s songs, yet it’s still quite relatable and somewhat radio friendly-ish.

The (friendly-ish” is not just because of “Lipstick’s” failure and the fact that Runaway June consists of three females, but also because of the instrumentation. For those of you who don’t know, and have been introduced to country by “Body Like a Back Road,” those things you’re hearing–that’s a fiddle, and that’s a steel guitar. This is still modern-sounding and in say, 2005, even 2009, it might have done really well on radio. Hopefully it can manage to somehow do that in 2017, or at least sell well enough to get their album released. I am really excited about this group, and a debut album from them cannot come soon enough. For now, go listen to “Wild West.”

Written By: Jennifer Wayne, Justin Lantz, Billy Montana

Note: at the time I wrote this, this was on Apple Music but not Spotify, it may be changed now.

Reflecting on: Pistol Annies–Hell on Heels

IN light of the new Angaleena Presley album coming out Friday, I thought it fitting to reflect this week on the debut from a group that broke up entirely too soon, the Pistol Annies.

Release Date: 2011
Style: traditional country
Who Might Like This album: fans of traditional country, fans of any of the solo work by Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, or Angaleena Presley, fans of Sunny Sweeney
Standout Tracks: “Hell on Heels,” “Bad Example,” “Beige,” “housewife’s Prayer,” “Lemon Drop”
Reflections: Man, what an interesting album. Definitely more traditional than any Miranda Lambert album, it gave this group instant success and critical acclaim in 2011 and was, for me, a better album than Miranda’s Four the Record, released later that year. Consisting of Ashley Monroe, Lambert, and angaleena Presley, Pistol Annies made a name for themselves telling the stories of real people in real-life situations. There’s the Monroe-led “Beige,” a story of a shotgun wedding. There’s “Lemon Drop,” led by Presley, where the narrator speaks of better days as she tries to pay off her TV and buys curtains from the thrift store. There’s “Housewife’s Prayer,” a contemplative track where the main character casually considers burning down her house for the insurance money. Everything here is real and raw, and all these songs were written by the women in this group. This project was quite unpolished, and yet the quality of the music, the stories being told, and the incredible harmonies here made this album something beautiful and to be remembered. I am glad the success of the annies launched the solo careers of Ashley and angaleena, but here’s to hoping the group reunites sooner rather than later.

Listen to Album