On Annie Up, the country-outlaw trope gets repurposed to address the concerns of a modern small-town woman, who's torn between wanting to burn out in a blaze of booze, painkillers, smoke, and no-good men and adhering to a conservative pattern of husband, kids, farm, and church. The Pistol Annies share a kind of rustic sass with many of their female country forebears, though their bad-assery is more confrontational, more unabashed in its self-destructive grit. Collectively, the group's persona comes off like Loretta Lynn with an Oxycotin problem: The brassiest number on the Pistol Annies' debut, Hell on Heels, is titled “Takin' Pills,” and their new album features a breakup lament addressed “Dear Sobriety.”
Like Hell on Heels, Annie Up walks the line between rebellion and conformity in ways that are both troubling and provocative. As intriguing as some of these defiant, self-satisfied anthems are, the wish for a traditional life trajectory almost always wins out in the end. In “Loved By a Workin' Man,” the band celebrates a man who “knows how to make ends meet/And he'll take you for a ride in his four-wheel drive/And he'll fix about anything”—a character type that doesn't necessarily challenge convention. If you accept the pretense of hard-living girl power that the Pistol Annies aggressively peddle through both its lyrics and its visual brand, it's tough to say whether this fallback conservatism is disheartening, predictable, or just plain honest, but it certainly isn't a boring topic for a country album. Perhaps most interesting are the ways in which the songs feature women maneuvering within those shopworn roles—the housewife, the barfly, the road-weary touring musician—and finding opportunities for debauchery and flagrant subversion inside those aspects of country life that other artists hold sacred.
The album opens with the arousing, slow-burning confession “I Feel a Sin Comin' On,” which resembles Hell on Heels's title track in that it establishes the performers as femmes fatale who will stop at nothing to gratify their libidos. While “Hell on Hells” simmers and smolders for three minutes, never breaking its midtempo stride, “I Feel a Sin Comin' On” kicks things up a notch midway through with an electric guitar wail and a bolder backdrop of drums and cymbals. “Hush Hush,” the album's lead single, narrates a dysfunctional family Christmas through some witty songwriting (“Everybody was walkin' on eggshells/Drinkin' eggnog instead of beer”) and a rockabilly breakdown, coinciding with the singer's decision to rip a joint behind her parents' barn.
Musically, this sophomore album isn't groundbreaking, but it feels more self-assured than the group's debut: the percussion packs a punch, the pedal steel conspicuously asserts itself, and the three-part harmonies sound mercifully richer than those on Hell On Heels, where the Nashville studio veneer occasionally makes a song such as “Bad Example” sound like an Alvin and the Chipmunks number. This time around, the three Annies make for a satisfying vocal mix: Miranda Lambert (stage name “Lonestar Annie”) unleashes her signature twang, Ashley Monroe (“Hippie Annie”) adds a sweeter tone and some nicely controlled breaks and yodels, and Angaleena Presley (Holler Annie”) rounds out the sound with a dusky alto.
The song that most cleverly reworks genre conventions is “Being Pretty Ain't Pretty,” a ballad that opens with a languid slide-guitar line and laments the demands of feminine grooming rituals: “Being pretty ain't pretty/It takes all day long/You spend all your money just to wipe it all off.” While there's something slightly silly about using a song structure typically reserved for heartbreak and loss to sing about bleached roots and spray tans, the lyrics and vocal delivery invest it with genuine pathos and weariness, as though the singer realizes she's caught in an abusive relationship, albeit with cultural beauty standards rather than a good-for-nothing drunk. Many of the songs, like “Unhappily Married,” evince a similar sense of being trapped, but also being generally okay with that, as long as one can dish out the occasional witty barb and wash every quasi-miserable day down with multiple glasses of whisky. If Annie Up doesn't quite break the country genre's familiar format, it's a hell of a lot of fun, and one could do worse than spend 40 minutes with these sassy almost-outlaws.