Monday, June 12, 2017

album review: 'wrangled' by angaleena presley

So as I've said a number of times recently, country is at a bit of a crossroads moment right now. Between the generally inoffensive pop country, the neotraditional and Texas tones picking up market share, the insurgent indie scene, and whatever sterile garbage Nashville is churning out to try and recapture a bro-country audience that has mostly stopped listening, the mainstream could tilt in many different directions and there hasn't been a lot of clarity where the chips will fall. But in the aftermath of bro-country's collapse, there is something that needs to be addressed: if you're looking for women on mainstream radio, you're going to be left in the cold. It's not saying that there aren't a few mainstream success stories - Kelsea Ballerini, Lauren Alaina and Maren Morris playing to the pop crowd, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert continuing to mostly chalk up hits as veterans - but especially when you look at the indie crossovers, I'm a little perplexed why we haven't seen that woman who can stand up with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, or Sturgill Simpson. Because these indie acts definitely exist - hell, I've covered a fair few of them, along with the artists who have a mainstream sound and could easily have radio presence if given the chance.

Take, say, Angaleena Presley. A member of the Pistol Annies along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, with her 2014 solo debut American Middle Class she won over critics in droves. And I dearly wish that I had covered it three years ago, because of the Pistol Annies while Miranda Lambert sanded back her edge for the mainstream and Ashley Monroe played to restraint, Angaleena Presley didn't have any compunctions embracing her inner hellraiser, her production more ramshackle and grimy to match writing that didn't mince words in its cutting approach to small town Americana. Kacey Musgraves might get cute about it, and Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna might showcase complicated melancholy, but there was intelligent fury and venom from Presley that was willing to get nastier. And let's be real, despite good connections conservative country radio tends to get very skittish with this sort of content, especially considering Presley never played as broad and accessible as Lambert or Carrie Underwood in her delivery or writing. And yet fast-forward to 2017: with the indie doors broken open these days for mainstream crossover, I have to admit I was a little surprised her second album Wrangled wasn't inspiring more conversation beyond the indie critical set, especially if it was at all comparable in quality to American Middle Class. So despite being late to the punch, I dug in - what did I find?

Well, I found a pretty damn solid country record that on some level feels like the natural continuation of American Middle Class, except this time with a tighter personal focus as Presley lashes out at a country music industry that pushed her away for all of the wrong reasons, and coming to grips with that disappointment as she stares out at what possibilities lay ahead of her. So while this is not better than American Middle Class - that record tapped into the sort of intensity and songwriting that's hard to replicate - you can definitely tell that Wrangled is coming from a more deeply held place, while being a pretty great record in its own right.

So to understand what happened here and set the stage, we need to start with lyrics and themes. Presley has described this record as her 'fuck you' album, so of course there'll be a level of bitterness that rings through, but the emotional portrait here is more complicated. There's always been a certain sexually brazen quality to Presley's image in comparison with the other Pistol Annies - one she of course embraced to great effect and still shows up here - but if anything it only heightens the sting of disappointment and lingering feelings of failure at having to readjust expectations. The song that has attracted the most attention is 'Country', a noisy and disheveled collaboration with Yelawolf where she mercilessly highlights the emptiness of bro-country list anthems, and while I think the instrumentation is a bit of a pile-up and Yelawolf's verse might pander a little too much to the indie country crowd that loves Sturgill and Shooter Jennings, having lived through bro-country, she's not wrong. But that's the anger: what lies beneath it is a sense of real wistful longing and pain, as you can tell she was trying to chase dreams and be herself only to see country throw her out to embrace a cleaner, more accessible, more conservative ideal, one that from the sounds of 'Bless My Heart' she has as much contempt for its plastic as I do. And that's the thing: if you listen to 'Outlaw' you can tell she never wanted to be pushed out for making this sort of music, she never wanted to be the 'villain' in her story, and when she has to go to her mother on 'Mama I Tried' to explain why the success isn't coming, it's hard. It certainly makes the Yelawolf collaboration make sense, as he also hasn't been afraid to highlight how audiences haven't embraced his work on songs like 'Heartbreak', and it's clear that Presley is at least aware that for as much as she chafes against society and religious strictures, on the title track the man in her life does so as well, working himself raw trying to provide - it's not just her who feels tied down, and to some extent she knows it. And so she adjusts to the smaller, harder indie scene, and by the end of the record finds a vestige of peace, and I can respect that.

All of that being said, for as much as I agree that Presley should never have to change to fit country's mold, especially when men are afforded so much more room to experiment that they rarely take, I have to wonder if a little more self-awareness might have tempered her expectations, because it's not like she writes fluffy or easy-to-digest material. 'High School' tackles teen pregnancy and a football QB taking pain pills to keep up with parent pressure, and 'Only Blood' has the main character marry a pastor, get abused and then gun him down - after all, only blood can set you free. That's a Nick Cave-esque murder ballad and yeah, it's awesome, but there's a part of me that isn't surprised mainstream conservative country radio might not have known what to do with it or the rest of her last album, especially when you consider Presley is twisting the moralistic framing into weird knots, which is a far cry from the power fantasies of Carrie Underwood's murder ballads. Presley's music does feel more visceral and real, especially courtesy of her more restrained and subtle delivery, but that can be a double-edged sword in her own right, reminding me most of Cheryl Desere'e in a far rougher, more desperate scene, not so much conventionally expressive but given how she has to knuckle back her rage and find her new lane, it makes sense.

Where it makes a little less sense is when you consider the production and instrumentation, which is playing to much of the same aggressive, barebones 'live' tones that colored much of American Middle Class. Hell, if anything cranking up the reverb and delay on both the vocal and guitar pickups makes many of these songs feel even more smoky and dark, especially on the interlude of 'Dreams Don't Come True', the dank swampy tones of 'Only Blood' or the more discordant charging riffs on 'Country'. And while I'm definitely going to give credit to the more striking basslines that ran through 'Mama I Tried' or the more traditional grooves running through the final few songs, I'm left feeling that this record may have overdone it a bit with some of the production, particularly in the reverb and squonking buzzy guitar tones - I've heard garage and blues rock with less bite than some of these, much less mainstream country, and I'm not sure I could recall any point when the radio would play something with this much edge. Again, I'm not saying I would object to hearing any of this, and Presley's approach to the more acoustic-leaning title track and 'Outlaw', or the banjo and electric guitar that anchors 'Groundswell' could conceivably slot in with their warmer blend of tones from the steel and electric guitars, but I don't know if even Eric Church or Chris Stapleton could have broken some of these songs to the radio. And again, that's not saying there shouldn't be a place for this stuff against the overly sanitized pop country or the meat-headed clunkers Nashville keeps shoveling out - in my opinion, there should be - but if one of your emotional anchor points of the record is rejection by the establishment, I think self-awareness about the overall sound of her work might have helped, especially considering Presley's subtler brand of writing and delivery is unlikely to trigger a sea change, as much as I'd welcome it.

But as a whole, I really did like Wrangled, and while I don't quite think the writing and production is quite as sharp or detailed as her debut, this is a damn fine followup. I like the rougher tones, the arc of the album is well-defined and contains plenty of nuance, and while it might have taken me a while, I did come around on Angaleena Presley's delivery here. For me, it's a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation - yes, I got to this one entirely too late, but if you do get a chance to hear it, check it out - definitely worth your time!

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