Wednesday, September 11, 2019

album review: 'the highwomen' by the highwomen

This is the sort of album where it would be too easy to set impossible expectations... providing, of course, you could contextualize a release like this anyway. That's the funny thing with a lot of supergroups, because given the individual members even a little more thought, you might see where it makes sense, until it just doesn't.

Now for me, go through three of the artists and it made complete sense. Brandi Carlile was coming off a Grammy-nominated year and probably had enough clout off her back catalog to land exactly what she wanted. Amanda Shires might have less immediate acclaim, as some have just pigeonholed her as the wife of Jason Isbell - which does a massive disservice to her fantastic violin work and an increasingly eclectic discography, including an album last year that didn't quite win me over but was certainly weird enough to attract attention. Then there's Natalie Hemby, the name that might not get the most immediate recognition unless you've been reading the liner notes of A Star Is Born, but I knew her most from her 2017 debut Puxico, an excellent album that I still can't find on vinyl to this day - seriously, if anyone would send me a lead, I'd be incredibly grateful here! But all three of these women made sense working together - not quite firebrands in the same way as the Pistol Annies, but maybe closer to case/lang/veirs or Trio, the legendary team-up between Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and Emmylou Harris, and when you see cowriting credits from Isbell, Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow, and Lori McKenna, plus production from Dave Cobb... shit, is there such a thing as stacking the deck?

And then there's Maren Morris - ironically the most "popular" artist on this list in terms of hits, but the name that stuck out like a sore thumb when I saw the supergroup lineup in terms of her sound and critical acclaim. Hell, you could make the argument that with her last album she was content to mine country for credibility as she continued her pop pivot... which is why her inclusion here is so damn fascinating. I mean, her best music has always been country so if her pop work was just a means to an end to get the industry pull to get here, all the power to her, especially if she could leverage her fanbase to bring a bigger audience to some fantastic talent. In other words, expectations were high: what did we get from The Highwomen? know, for as much as I opened this review setting expectations and focusing on the strangeness of the collaboration, the larger reality is that there's already an audience that wants this to faceplant, be it because of long-standing grudges with Maren Morris or the politics of the artists involved or even just the mild heresy of setting such a close mirror to the legendary Highwaymen supergroup. But let me make this clear: when I come here and say that The Highwomen is one of the best albums of 2019, not just in country, it's not just in refutation to those remarks, but also how the album is smart enough to see all of that coming and push even harder. And I'll admit I'm a little stunned how well this coalesced, but I'm absolutely thrilled that another strong year for women in country got such a banner entry - what an unexpected treat!

And here's the funny thing: all of the women involved are well aware of the historical lineage they're stepping into and the acclaim surrounding the Highwaymen albums - which for as much talent was on display were a little inconsistent and dated today, especially Highwayman 2 and especially the production. So when this album opens with 'Highwomen', a song that interpolated the original melodic and lyrical structure of 'Highwaymen' and somehow manages to hit a little harder thanks to more distinctive characters and unfair ends they faced, it's a testament both to smart writing and incredible presence as singers. This is where the group has gotten some immediate criticism in how the harmonies are not as uniform or clean as you might expect, especially in comparison with the Pistol Annies, but I actually like that a fair bit - between the original four with their own distinctive timbres and guests like Yola and Sheryl Crow, the unique voices reflect both unity and distinctive identity, and the richness of the singing and harmonies is by far the biggest selling point. Hell Yola brings so much presence on the title track that I have to wonder if an opportunity was missed to not include her outright, but that does highlight the tricky thing with supergroups like this: balancing all of the talent, especially in an era where you'd like to see verses and harmonies from all four. I'll be blunt, I do wish there were more songs where all four women leaned into the big harmonies instead of ceding time for solo tracks, even if I can count an impressive number of highlights there as well. And like with any album that has multiple singers, I always see it as a bit of a missed opportunity when you don't play with the song structure to have each singer play a distinctive role - although I will say that this album does allow individual personality to shine through from each singer, from Brandi Carlile as the worldweary troubadour, Amanda Shires as the witchy outsider who still has strong ties to her home and family, Maren Morris as the tough girl who wound up growing up too damn fast, and Natalie Hemby as more of a natural traditionalist.

And when you dig into the writing, not only do these roles shine through, they feel consistent song after song. Take a cut like 'My Name Can't Be Mama', where for very different reasons none of these women are quite ready for motherhood and the family - hell, Amanda Shires outright takes off! But Natalie Hemby isn't really on the song in the same way, because she takes more of the family focus driving 'Crowded Table' - cowritten with Lori McKenna because of course it is - and later on she gets 'My Only Child', a regretful and complicated song grappling with how she wanted more children but can't have them. And that's something that deserves a lot of attention: especially in the writing, this is an album by women primarily for women, which is why starting with 'Highwomen' is such a potent statement of purpose and while there's an element of kitsch to 'Redesigning Women', the exasperation behind the obligations still can ring true if you're willing to hear it. And while I think the two kissoff songs - 'Loose Change' primarily from Maren Morris and 'Don't Call Me' primarily from Amanda Shires - do make sense from their singers and in the context of the album, they pale a little in comparison to cuts that are delving into more emotional complexity. Take the Jason Isbell-cowritten 'If She Ever Leaves Me', sung by Brandi Carlile as the sort of wonderfully textured lesbian love song that outright shoves the male gaze and voice aside, and when paired with the closing song 'Wheels Of Laredo' where the connection cannot last before she must take to the road again they hang as beautifully poignant and wistful moments. And the father-daughter tearjerker that Amanda Shires delivers on 'Cocktail and a Song', where the words unsaid between the dying man and a daughter aspiring for his gruff affection, it's an incredibly striking moment only magnified by the contrast presented by the role Amanda Shires plays on this album. Hell, even Maren Morris steps up in a big way on 'Old Soul', where she yearns for that hot-blooded love but has been ground down by obligations and experience - I'll admit I felt that one a lot more than I was expected, even if I've always found the 'old soul' label odd to quantify. But one thing that remains absolutely clear is that the Highwomen not just revere the legends that laid the path ahead - there's little if any animosity towards guys so much as this album isn't centering them in its universal narrative - but want to ensure there is space for their voice as well, which is why 'Heaven Is a Honkytonk' pays such obvious tribute to the song structures of the original Highwaymen but gently prods towards an inclusive picture - they're all sinners that have a place, after all.

And here's the thing: if it was just terrific poetry and lyrical nuance, that'd be one thing, but for an album to still have a burnished warmth and distinctive country timbre to fit snugly within the genre is another altogether, and it's hard for me to not consider the majority of this album a slam dunk. Now let me stress that if you have issues with Dave Cobb's recording style... well, some of my consistent gripes haven't gone away so much as overshadowed by the quality we do get. The basslines feel a little underweight and lacking in foundation - if there's a problem with Dave Cobb's work for years now, it is this - the mono mixing does mean some vocal blends are a little sharper than they should be, and there's a bit too much reverb as a whole that can muddy a few mixes from being as crisp and punchy. All of that being said, he production does feel distinct from the more bare stretches he's given Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, or the burnished vintage tones for Lori McKenna - if anything, it feels like Dave Cobb is producing to give these songs a shot for radio while not compromising a country sound, which is probably a fair enough intersection point for all four women while still giving Brandi Carlile's piano some space and especially Amanda Shires' violin, which is back and was sorely missed! And those are just the flourishes - what honestly caught me a little off-guard was how many pure hooks or switch-ups on the bridge that I saw - I was lukewarm on 'Redesigning Women' for as blunt as it could be, but that switch to the full harmony on the bridge was exactly what the song needed; same with the bridge on 'Crowded Table'. And say what you will about some of Dave Cobb's production instincts, I can't fault the rich fiddle pickup carrying the main melody of 'My Only Child' and how it accented the melancholic pianos of 'Cocktail and a Song', or how the organ added some welcome texture behind 'Wheels Of Laredo' and 'Redesigning Women', or how windswept 'Old Soul' was allowed to be, or how despite leaning primarily on the piano and more distant guitar embellishments, there's still genuine warmth for 'If She Ever Leaves Me'.

But as a whole... you know, even though I've used it, I'm never fond of the phrase 'it's not for me', because while it might be apt for musical experiences that just don't hit that emotive heartstring, I'm always left with the lingering feeling of the possibility that at a certain level of overall quality it would transcend that. And on content alone, The Highwomen album isn't for me - it's an album by women for women at its core, plain and simple... and yet I still adore it because the stories are told with nuance and empathy, the production is warm and inviting, and the harmonies hit precisely the right notes to come together, and you'd like to think those are worth universal appreciation regardless of their intended audience. And I think if you're willing to accept where in the audience this fits, it'll absolutely work for you too: 9/10, one of the best of 2019, the highest of my recommendations, and while I have no idea if this is just a one-off or we could get more, I can't wait to hear it. And yeah, I'll say it, they're worthy heirs indeed - check it out!

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