Sunday, June 8, 2014

album review: 'platinum' by miranda lambert

It's more than a little sad that when I look at the mainstream country charts, it's almost universally dominated by male country acts, especially when you look at what's getting pushed by mainstream radio. And if you watch the charts as closely as I do, you'll notice for the most part, this is more of a radio problem, because digital airplay tends to be a little more evenly spread between the sexes, or at least a little quicker to pick up on ebbing trends.

But it didn't use to be like this. See, back in the mid-2000s, there was a rising swell of new female country stars that came in the aftermath of the popular backlash against the Dixie Chicks that led to their careers effectively ending in the mainstream. This wave included Carrie Underwood, Gretchen Wilson, and Kellie Pickler among others, but the artist who got the most critical attention was Miranda Lambert. Stepping in with a reputation for sharp songwriting, a ton of natural stage presence and fiery personality, and a series of songs that viciously thrashed the guys who did her wrong, this persona was focused best in her critically acclaimed 2007 album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And given that album is overloaded with murder ballads, you can bet that it became a quiet favourite of mine even as I drifted away from country in the mid-2000s.

However, like most records with that kind of explosive force and character, Miranda Lambert has struggled somewhat to match it. That's not saying her wit or phenomenal knack for personal framing and maturity has fallen away, but the compositions haven't always been able to match her in production or melody. And while I don't mind her slower pieces and some of the rich songwriting behind them, I do admit I prefer Miranda Lambert the firespitter to Miranda Lambert the loving wife. Of course, when she blends the two, you get incendiary tracks like 'Mama's Broken Heart', which was one of my favourite hit songs of last year, but that most recent album could have used a little more fiery guitar, some rougher production and to have eased up a little on the cymbals. So of course I was going to check out her newest album Platinum - how did that turn out?

Well, this'll be a bit of a tricky one, because while I don't think the album is anything close to bad, it doesn't really grip me as much as previous releases. It's the sort of record that has a lot of the hallmarks of Miranda Lambert's releases and touches on several themes well, but it's also the sort of artistic shift that might signify a parting of the ways between me and Miranda Lambert, in that I find this music a fair bit less interesting than previous releases. That said, I think the purpose of this review will be nailing down whether the issue is mine or hers, why I still like this album, but don't really love it.

So let's start with the obvious positive: Miranda Lambert herself. As I've said, she's a great charismatic presence behind the microphone with a unique voice and a strong emotional range. And she does a lot to make this record really compelling on her own basis, with solid comic timing for the sillier songs, a certain wry self-awareness on some of her more politically angled tracks, and an ability to sing with real passion on the songs that demand emotional attention. And even in comparison with her guest stars including Carrie Underwood who I'll admit I've never found all that interesting, Miranda Lambert is an easy standout and shows a ton of versatility as a singer and performer. The one major slip-up, however, is on 'Little Red Wagon', mostly because it's not a great song and Miranda Lambert just doesn't sound convincing as that particular type of hell-raiser. I mean, come on Miranda, this isn't you and you know it, leave that for Lydia Loveless or Kesha.

And speaking of Kesha, 'Little Red Wagon' also stands out for two less complimentary reasons, the first being that it's vastly inferior to Kesha's 'Gold Trans Am' which was on the deluxe version of her last album Warrior, and also that the production is pretty lousy. In fact, if we're looking for a weak point on this record, the production definitely stand out. The instrumentation is varied, to be sure, and there are moments I do like: I like that Miranda Lambert is willing to give her guitars a little snarl and power, I really dig the clear, shimmering guitar tones on 'Smokin and Drinkin' and 'Automatic', I love the heavy strumming on 'Bathroom Sink', and I thought the sillier vibe of 'Gravity's A Bitch' and 'All That's Left', to say nothing of the strings melody in the latter track, were really well put-together. And I actually kind of dug the experimental edge of 'Two Rings Shy', even if I'm not really a fan of the song, but that's more linked to my natural dislike for circus-inspired songs. But on Platinum the production is incredibly inconsistent, and the choice to add reverb everywhere isn't exactly a good one, because it takes away from Miranda's intimacy, to say nothing of the pitch correction on some tracks that really sounds forced. Don't get me wrong, I like 'Smokin' and Drinkin', but the production on the vocals is almost robotic, and that's the last thing you want for a Shane McAnally & Luke Laird written campire song! And that's not saying anything about the composition of 'Something Bad' - I like the guitar production, but would it kill them to develop a decent groove because with the mix is nowhere near visceral and the entire track comes across as messy. And I'll repeat the same complaint I always have with Miranda Lambert's production: the cymbals are nearly always too high in the mix compared to the rest of the drums, and that can overshadow the melodies. It's a nitpick, but it's always been distracting.

Another said nitpick would be the album's length - at nearly an hour and sixteen tracks, Platinum feels long - and a way to fix that would be to cut many songs of the songs on this record with no writing credits from Miranda Lambert. This is her least number of writing credits to date - and let me say this, I can tell when the song isn't written by Miranda Lambert, because she has a unique voice and poetic style, and honestly, she sounds best over her own material. And really, the weak songs on this album aren't written by her. Sure, if we cut them all we'd lose 'Smokin' and Drinkin', the Little Big Town collaboration about missed connections, and we'd lose the pretty great swinging vibe of the kiss-off track 'All That's Left', but then we'd also lose 'Pretty Red Wagon' and 'Something Bad' and 'Old Shit', a song that seems to be endorsing vintage with some scratchy production that seems way too sincere to be taken seriously and yet isn't really funny and doesn't have the social commentary of a song like 'Thrift Shop'. And we'd also thankfully lose 'Babies Making Babies', the unquestionably worst song on this record - and it's not for the production or instrumentation, because outside of the excess of reverb, they're both fine. No, my issue comes with the attempt at morally ambiguous framing with regards to teen pregnancies, by starting by saying the couple isn't on the pill and they're in love and then it can be really hard... but then once the baby's there and gets baptized it's all okay! And hell, they even contribute to a small town's population, and surely that's more important than parents who are ready for kids or a supportive family who might take issue with sons and daughers having babies in high school or stable jobs and careers that show signs of advancement or the fact that this'll inevitably make it eons harder for the mother to pursue her dreams and goals! The framing ends up glorifying teen pregnancy in a really uncomfortable way, and I'm hate to go here, but teenagers should not be having kids, especially when contraception and sex education is available. The natural counterpoint to this framing done right is the TV show Reba, and sure, it goes for the fact that once the baby arrived for Cheyenne and Van, Reba was happy, but it seriously did a number on that family and really complicated their lives and they got lucky Reba as the grandmother was able to help - whereas this song never seems to address the consequences and comes pretty close to romanticizing the whole endeavour, or treating it like 'eh, that's life', when it really doesn't have to be.

And that really gets frustrating, because Miranda Lambert can frame songs a lot better if she writes them. Yes, I'll acknowledge that for me, the title track is ridiculously silly in the 'blondes have more fun vein, but I get the feeling it's supposed to like that and it's clearly not aimed at me. But then you have songs like 'Automatic', a song about how society seems to move so quickly to render things - and people - obsolete, or the song 'Bathroom Sink', which is about family drama and shows how hard it can be to deal with longstanding grudges and frustrations with the people you love. In fact, if I was looking for a loose theme of this record, it'd probably come through in songs like these, because Miranda's musings about her family and her life right now are easily the most interesting songs on this album. She didn't write 'Priscilla', but it's probably the closest to capturing her voice as she asks Elvis' wife how she dealt with fame and her husband's preening. And while 'Gravity's A Bitch' is a pretty silly look at getting older, the lyrics have enough charm and poetry to redeem it. Hell, even though I'm not a fan of the circus metaphor, I liked the lyrics of 'Two Rings Shy' co-written by Brandy Clark about how Miranda doesn't want to be considered a trophy wife. And 'Hard Staying Sober' and 'Holding Onto You' are confessional and well-written, one being a pretty convincing breakup track and the other about the hardships of being on the road and holding onto her love for her husband. These songs have nuance and flavour and are delivered so well that it frustrates me Miranda Lambert doesn't choose to write more of her own songs. And she's one of the most successful women in modern country, she could take complete control of her artistic process if she really wanted. 

Now I don't know if she does, but let's return to my original question: are the issues with Platinum my issues or larger problems? I think, honestly, some of both. I really don't like the politics behind 'Babies Making Babies', but that's my issue, and I'm fully aware that there are songs here that will relate to women a lot more than me. At the same time, though, I can't help but feel that it's one of her weaker records. The songwriting is less consistent, the production problems have not gone away, and it's really too long to sustain the sort of impact it wants to have. At the same time, though, it's a Miranda Lambert album and it has the majority of the elements I like about her, so... I'm going to give this album a very tentative 7/10, and a definite recommendation if you're either a woman or you're closer to Miranda's age and situation. Otherwise... well, in terms of mainstream country, you're not getting a much better, but at the same time, it could have been.

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