Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material // Ashley Monroe – The Blade

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material-2015-billboard-650x650I’m not entirely sure, but I can’t help thinking Kacey Musgraves has gone a  bit Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not in terms of sound – that’s simply an evolution of what it was before – but in terms of what she sings about.

You know the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd: excellent first album (Pronounced), including the jukebox favourite ‘Freebird’ as well as instant classics such as ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ and ‘Gimme Three Steps’. And they kept releasing and touring and touring until the only things in their lives were the record label and the never-ending tour. So eventually all of their songs seemed to be about the record label and being on the road. And then half of them died in a plane crash.

This is Kacey Musgraves’ second album, but already I’m getting a strong impression that the things she’s got to write about these days include standing or sitting around at awards ceremonies – an indication, perhaps, of what a whirlwind of success (and near-misses) she has been swept along by over the past year.

So how good was that first album? I think it was pretty good. My daughter liked it more than me. I thought the stripped back sound was fairly pleasant, but a whole album’s worth of it wore a bit thin. The hit single ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was very good, but got a little over-exposed, in much the same way that Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ has.

At the time, I was listening a lot to both to Same Trailer, Different Park, and Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose, which I preferred. You don’t have to either/or this, of course, you can have and like both, and I did. But I did think that some of the attention lavished on Kacey Musgraves might have also been directed towards Ms Monroe. Not to take anything away from Kacey Musgraves, but Monroe songs like ‘Weed Instead of Roses’ and ‘She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind’ deserved the kind of attention that ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was getting.

And here we are again, a couple of years later, and once again the release dates are somewhat clashing.

First up and already out is the new one From Ms Musgraves, Pageant Material, which is a 14 song collection that moves us along slightly in terms of sound, and a little bit in terms of song quality. It’s unfortunate that the lead single ‘Biscuits’ was so similar to ‘Arrow’ (Chuck Dauphin called it ‘Follow Your Arrow Pt 2’) – not because it means Musgraves is a limited songwriter but because it’s a clear indication that the record label are putting their heavy, sweaty, interfering hands all over her. You can just imagine the Nashville-like scenes, as she presents them with an excellent selection of original songs and some suit demands to know where the single is. And by single, he (or she) means, where’s that song that’s exactly the same as that other song you had?

(All of this done in the vacuum of a record label that seemingly doesn’t know that there’s very little fucking chance that a country radio station would play a single by a female artist in the first place.)

To be fair to ‘Biscuits’, it’s a decent song, and has a more interesting structure than ‘Arrow’, particularly in the breakdown/middle 8, which takes the song in a completely different direction. But another song here that perhaps sounds too familiar is ‘Family’, which if you told me it was a cut held over the first record, I’d believe you.

The opener, though, sounds like it might be from the soundtrack of one of those Summer of Love ‘Head’ movies. Lush strings and a song about getting high, which is sort of KM’s stock-in-trade by now. ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’ is her summing up her image and acknowledging she’ll never be properly showbiz. This is kinda what I was talking about with the Lynyrd Skynyrd thing. The title track, too, hints at the idea that she doesn’t feel equipped for being nominated and having to make speeches at awards ceremonies. Again, it has an interesting structure, and she uses the melody to play with the lyrics in a creative way. I really like the title track, in fact.

If you took this album’s attitude back 15 or 20 years, and swapped genders, a lot of this could have come from some kind of new-wave ‘outlaw’ like Travis Tritt. While Tritt wouldn’t have sung about pageants, there’s a similar outlook here, a kicking-against-the-pricks attitude. Of course, in the case of the modern country music industry, the pricks she’s kicking against are the good ol’ boys who dominate the charts at the moment with their songs about trucks and beer – all of them owing a debt to Travis Tritt and other country new-wavers. ‘I don’t want to be part of / Your good ol’ boy’s club’, sings Musgraves, displaying a confident middle finger to the mainstream country media, which has collectively decided to try to ignore women.

If you liked or loved the first album, you’ll surely like this, and if you appreciate good songwriting you should too. The songs can sound deceptively straightforward, but she hits you between the eyes sometimes with extraordinary lyrical flights that remind me of that other clever songwriter, Taylor Swift. Lacey Musgraves is far removed from Ms Swift in terms of genre, but has a similar intellect.

Which brings me onto The Blade, Ashley Monroe’s forthcoming follow-up to Like A Rose. This isn’t out till July(?), but because of the modern way of releasing music, I’ve already got four tracks, which is enough for me to declare a judgement. Monroe’s sound is less stripped-back than KM’s, and her voice (objectively) has a better tone and more range. This album, like her previous, is co-produced by Vince Gill, who sees her as a natural successor to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

The opening track and lead single, ‘On To Something Good’ is a rolling country-soul instant classic. Go ahead, play the video above. I’ll wait. It has the kind of instant appeal of ‘Take Hold of My Hand’, the opening cut on Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears. It really is a fabulous sounding track.

There’s also a version of a song previously recorded by Matraca Berg: ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’, which gives that song the more powerful impact it deserves.

The title track, on the other hand, has a completely different feel: a slow ballad with pedal steel guitar it’s an emotionally intense break-up song.

I let your love in, I have the scar

I felt the razor against my heart

I thought we were both in all the way

But you caught it by the handle

And I caught it by the blade.

Lyrics like this are why I love country music.

The Blade sounds like (it’s going to be) a more mainstream country offering than Pageant Material, which is why Kacey Musgraves has a better chance of appealing to a cross-over audience than Ashley Monroe does. But there should be no such thing as an if you only buy one country album this year… Get both.

(I might update when I get hold of the rest of The Blade – but it’s worth pre-ordering on the strength of the first four tracks alone.)

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