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Album Review: Pistol Annies’ ‘Interstate Gospel’

Down is up in 2018's best country album, which finds its elation in gallows humor, rural realism and all-too-rarely heard female viewpoints.

Miserabilism has become a nearly lost art in Nashville as country music has grown increasingly, buoyantly exurban. (You know you’re old if the ancient joke about playing a country record backward and getting your wife, dog and truck back makes a lick of sense.) But leave it to some of the genre’s leading ladies, whose reasons for woe include the disenfranchisement of female artists on the dial, to remember how fulfilling it is to write a song about how life sucks and you still don’t die. “Interstate Gospel,” the third album from country’s all-female supergroup — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — is pretty miserable, and pretty great; it’s spirit-lifting, seeing how low they can go.

The trio includes one legit superstar, Lambert, who seems even more liberated by the lack of pressure to produce a radio hit (although that definitely wasn’t the driving force of her last solo record, “The Weight of These Wings,” either). Her partners in crime have fewer commercial expectations to dodge but also thrive in this communal environment. You can tell “Interstate Gospel” is unconcerned with airplay not just because of its down-is-up approach to dawdling in dark territory, but because about half of the 15 tracks are waltzes. Now, that’s uncommercial.

Sometimes these three play depression for laughs, and sometimes they play it for depression. It’s a good mix: Just when you think they’re fetishizing pain for fun (a glorification that worked out well enough in the heyday of O.G. miserabilist Porter Wagoner), they hit you with something that feels lived-in enough to wipe the knowing-hepster smile off your face. It’s not always easy to tell from the first line which way a song will go: Does “I’ve picked a good day for a recreational Percocet” portend comedy or tragedy? (In this case, on “The Best Years of My Life,” it’s more the latter.)

The gallows humor peaks with a 6/8 ballad that has each woman take turns spouting country platitudes about their man — “He’s funny as hell, hot as July / He’s strong when I’m weak and strong when I cry” — followed by the kicker, “I said that, too, when I was his wife.” Or maybe the lightest-hearted highlight is “Got My Name Changed Back,” a legal-papers-celebrating rave-up with a backstory: “Well, I got me an ex that I adored / But he got along good with a couple road whores.” Lambert takes sole lead vocals here, as the tune skips choruses for screaming guitar and Dobro solos that answer her verses. There are one or two pure-swagger songs on every Pistol Annies album, and the bad-girl badinage arrives in the bar sisterhood anthem “Stop Drop and Roll One” (“I don’t really care how this phony-ass fairy tale ends / I just hope that we’re leaving this honky-tonk covered in men”), and in “Sugar Daddy,” a paean to benefactors that has such good, Stones-y rock riffing, gold-digging sounds like a fine idea.

But “Interstate Gospel” is best when the gals get their John Prine on and create character sketches that choke you up without a gag. The acoustic “5 Acres of Turnips” has the descendant of a farming family confessing she prefers the crops coming out of the ground to the no-good grandfather they’re burying in it — a twist the Annies deliver as poetry instead of a punchline. These songs aren’t solely about being sinned against by men (although, as themes go, that’s a heck of an evergreen), but doing the sinning too, as in “Leavers Lullaby,” which has a “crazy” and “mean” narrator deserting a not-tough-enough guy and measuring “what it cost to feel so free.”

The album’s masterpiece is “Milkman,” the title of which sets you up for a retro joke about adultery. But it’s dead sober as all three artists reflect on the liberties their more wholesome mothers didn’t indulge in — “If mama would’ve loved the milkman, maybe she wouldn’t judge me” — and the benefits and drawbacks that befall the generations of women on either side of the emancipated divide. “Milkman” is a song about women that could only have been written and sung by women, and a particularly brilliant example of the viewpoints we’re missing by making them tokens or phantoms in any genre.

It shouldn’t come as any huge surprise that in a year when Ashley McBryde and Kacey Musgraves have been responsible for the genre’s finest records, a strength-in-female-numbers Pistol Annies collection would turn out to be 2018’s best country album. As an alternately droll and affecting wallow in and cure for the blues, it beats the hell out of a recreational Percocet.

 

Pistol Annies

“Interstate Gospel”

RCA Records Nashville

Producers: Frank Liddell, Glen Worf, Eric Masse

 

Album Review: Pistol Annies' 'Interstate Gospel'

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