Whereas many side projects ultimately amount to little more than artistically inert, self-indulgent one-offs, Miranda Lambert's Pistol Annies is true to her reputation of defying expectations. With Hell on Heels, she, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe have made a truly spectacular, smart country album. To give Lambert sole credit for the project's success, however, would be shortsighted. A truly collaborative effort in terms of songwriting, performance, and construction of a distinct persona, Hell on Heels succeeds because of how unified the three women are in terms of their vision. Lambert's entire solo career, at least to anyone who actually paid attention to the finer details of her songwriting on Kerosene and especially Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, has been based on using a unique point of view and perfectly chosen first-person details to create a fully realized, complex image, and that's exactly what Pistol Annies have accomplished here as well. That they're successful in meeting this goal in just barely 30 minutes' worth of material is one hell of a trick.
Both the title track and the raucous "Takin' Pills" do the heavy lifting as far as character development goes, with each of the three Annies taking the mic to confess to her vices and to using her best assets for fun and profit. If there's an element of playing dress-up (in broad terms, the concept here is that the Annies are three rowdy working-class women who started a band as a means of escaping their day-to-day drudgery), the three women are well aware of that and unabashedly own it. So much of contemporary country gets mired in pointless handwringing about authenticity, resulting in a host of interchangeable singers who do little more than rattle off lists of rural signifiers in ineffective attempts to establish their country cred. The Pistol Annies don't bother with any of that; Hell on Heels is an album that trades heavily in artifice, and it's all the better for it.
When Lambert, Monroe, and Presley call each other out as "One's drinkin'/One's smokin'/One's takin' pills," they're absolutely in on the joke, and they give their audience credit for being smart enough to know that there's a joke to be played in the first place. They're also smart enough to realize that the characters they're creating need to be more than just pill-popping gold diggers. The escapism of a song like "Bad Example" or the lust-fuelled "Boys from the South" only works if there's something to escape from, and the gentle optimism of Presley's "Lemon Drop" and the self-loathing of Monroe's flat-out devastating "Beige" give their characters depth and complexity.
Of course, none of this would work if the songs weren't actually good, but they're frequently brilliant. "Lemon Drop," in particular, is both timely in its political bent and subversive in its use of an uptempo, cheerful arrangement on what is essentially a blues song. Presley sighs, "I got thrift store curtains in the windows of my home/I'm payin' for a house that the landlord owns," with a palpable frustration, but she's undeterred by her present condition because she's convinced herself that "there's better days ahead." Even better is "Housewife's Prayer," a dirge that recalls the themes of Shawn Colvin's "Sunny Came Home," but with a far greater degree of specificity. The Annies may be having fun with the concept of an artist's image, but a line like "I've been thinking about all these pills I'm taking/I wash 'em down with an ice cold beer and the love I ain't been making" proves that Hell on Heels is also an album of substance and insight. None of these women should give up their solo careers, but it would be a shame if Hell on Heels were the last anyone heard of the Pistol Annies.