Twenty years since the release of her first album, Miranda Lambert still happily confounds country’s hardcore traditionalists as to who she is, precisely, while maintaining Texas and Nashville’s interest and fandom. Precise just isn’t her thing. Ruckus-raising revenge fantasias; housewife tomes portraying the chinks in a relationship’s armor; meditations on being a woman loved, scorned, horny, humble and haughty — country music’s doyenne of distress, ire and desire has done it all, dynamically.
What Lambert hasn’t done, though, is strip it all down, with friends rather than session stalwarts on her side. Aiding and fully collaborating with Lambert in music, lyric and vocalizing on a new album, “The Marfa Tapes,” are old friends and fellow Texans Jon Randall and Jack Ingram. Ingram’s a damn fine songwriter whose “Wherever You Are” was a hit near the top of the 2000s; Randall played for Emmylou Harris and wrote for Brad Paisley before going onto production gigs for Dwight Yoakam and Dierks Bentley. If this new album doesn’t bring them a boatload of new fans, little else could.
They’re all names-above-the-title, but it’s hard not to zero in on “The Marfa Tapes” as, beyond a Texas all-star seminar, a record that stands as Lambert’s most cutting work. It’s her most convivial and collaborative recording, even when the subject is terse or mournful, and even when she’s out there on her own. The spirit of friendship, of getting in a car and driving to a favorite hangout to hash things is all over “The Marfa Tapes.”
All those raw emotions, tense ruminations and giddy highs: slice them to the bone, without fluff, filigree, ornate instrumentation or over-production, and the lean, mean meat of Lambert’s lyrical and vocal work is given a cutting, Hemingway-like edge, all without losing a lick of its sensuality and sensitivity. There’s even a hint of the disarming redneck charm Lambert has maintained since 2001, now part of “Marfa”’s spare and heady brew.
The origin story of “The Marfa Tapes” finds this friendly trio traveling to the small, artsy Texas town of the same name to find their music’s rawer roots. The mix of a laissez faire attitude toward wounded hearts and shattered souls, combined with a first-take/best-take edge to these stripped-down soliloquies, gives the entirety of “The Marfa Tapes” its gutsiness and, in its own fashion, a newfangled grandeur, one based on the theory that working with less offers an opportunity for so much more.
With but a hint of the Mexican border in Randall’s soft guitar-plucked melody and a teardrop in its tequila shot, Lambert leads her brothers through the tender, trembling “In His Arms.” With her own voice set to “Dolly-circa-Porter-Wagoner, 1967,” aided by Ingram’s harmonies, Lambert creates her own “Loverman, oh-where-can-he-be” momentum, just by staring into the Texan skyline: “Is he playin’ in some house band in Dallas/Is he breaking horses in San Antone/Is he all alone in the neon light.”
Ingram takes the next tune’s lead, “I Don’t Like It,” and allows his rustbelt rasp its own vulnerability, just by hinging on one simple thought — the fear of not being nearest the one he loves. That Lambert wraps Ingram’s boyish voice in kind, quiet harmony is akin to wrapping a newborn baby in a family’s old familiar blanket.
The space and place of the room they recorded in is the true star of “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow,” as each participant — Lambert, in particular — sounds apart from a mic’s amplification. The vibe, instead, is as if a camera peered over a transom while a woman wrote a sad, frank entry in her daily diary. “I used to make you love me / Laugh and want to touch me / Now I drink alone and cry at my own jokes / Your halo’s in the dresser drawer / And I don’t wear my ring no more”
If a monologue as morose as that makes it sound as if “The Marfa Tapes” might lack wry humor or light, wait for “Am I Right or Amarillo” and “Waxahachie.” While the former finds the mordant trio usually singing in handsome unision about how “it won’t feel like cheating if nobody gets hurt,” the strummy “Waxahachie” gives Lambert a chance to softly show off her one-time “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” side with lyrics that go “Nobody ever left New Orleans as mad as I was / I wrote a lipstick letter on the mirror with a bourbon buzz.”
You can even hear the trio laughing at themselves — another rich texture in the album’s ambient whir — during the jumping, jovial “Homegrown Tomatoes,” the woozy blues of “Tequila Does” and the aptly titled “Two-Step to Texas,” with Lambert in full, fast warble and her boy partners howling and ooh-ahh-ing in the background. In this regard, when the three are firing on all vocal cylinders, and having the best-est time, this trio is reminiscent of (albeit in a lo-fi version) Lambert’s other threesome, the mostly raucous Pistol Annies, with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley.
It is still the slow-stirring, profoundly emotional ballads emanating from Lambert, Ingram and Randall that cut the deepest and achingly feel their way through the ruins of romance. The pensive jazzy shuffle of “We’ll Always Have the Blues” — played by Randall, sung solely by Ingram — could be pre-skronk Tom Waits at his best with its barroom ramble and battered passion (“It’s almost closing time / Give us one more dance or two / We’ll never have each other / But we’ll always have the blues”).
Playing guitar and singing on her own, Lambert’s coy, clever “Tin Man” — first recorded for the double album “The Weight of These Wings” in 2016 — is dreamily mournful, as the gorgeously voiced, thought-provoking songstress tells Frank L. Baum’s metal icon just how fortunate he may be without knowing it.: “You ain’t missing nothing / Cause love is so damn hard / Take it from me, darlin’ / You don’t want a heart.” Had Judy Garland only cleared that up for us sooner, so many of our collective childhoods would have been so much different. As for Lambert, pulling this lost gem from the mud of “The Weight of These Wings,” and allowing its raw beauty to peek through, now, in spare settings was wise.
United as one behind Lambert on “Ghost,” perhaps the album’s subtlest revenge raga, Ingram and Randall take it nice and slow while Lambert throws out her best wronged woman’s suggestions for survival: burn your Levi’s and pearl snap shirts, replace their joined headboard with a chiseled stone in dedication to one man’s meanness. It’s so heartbreaking, gusty and simple — one wave away and he’s gone: “Ghost” is love’s most elegant and quietly vicious kiss off. And all so quiet.
Including the equitable participation of Ingram and Randall in its making, a question arises: is “The Marfa Tapes”’ Lambert’s finest full album? It is certainly her purest and least sonically complicated, which is great when considering her warmly warbling voice. And like her bigger, broader sounding albums, she gives as good as she gets, quietly, while sounding as grand as if she had a studio band’s excess at work. This time, however, it only took a couple of fellow Texans and an empty room down in Marfa to bring the best out of Lambert.