The last time an A-list country star at the height of her popularity put together a right-and-proper side project was when Dolly Parton joined forces with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt for their highly successful Trio album, all the way back in 1987. Leave it to Miranda Lambert, who hasn’t exactly stuck to Nashville’s conventions over the course of her career, to be the one to end that lengthy drought. Teaming with her friends Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe (who should’ve been a star in her own right several times over by now), Lambert has formed Pistol Annies, who made their debut on an ACM Girls Night Out television special a couple of months back.
Kicking off with a spare, sinister acoustic guitar figure before slowly layering in a light percussion line and distorted, bluesy electric guitar riff in the background, the Pistol Annies’ first single, “Hell on Heels,” impresses for setting a clear mood from its first notes. It’s a record on which intentions are deliberately obscured: Nearly 30 full seconds pass before the vocals ever saunter in, allowing the hazy, ominous tone to take hold. And when the vocals do start, they’re cast in heavy echoes and reverb, giving them a haunting quality that only reinforces that tone. Considering the content of the song and the Annies’ coy deliveries, these are structurally perfect production choices that are sophisticated and incredibly effective.
The song’s central conceit is fairly simple, as each singer gets a verse to boast of how she used her beauty, smarts, and a little help from a deal with the devil to take the money and run from a long list of sugar daddies. The Annies, to hear their story, have accrued a small fortune in jewelry, high-end property holdings, and luxury vehicles from the men who simply couldn’t resist their charms, and their sultry performances make it easy to understand how that might have happened. And the Annies will be damned if they’ll apologize for their trail of destruction: Monroe makes it her goal to “break me a million hearts” and sounds like she’s well on her way. To that end, the repeated line “I’m hell on heels/Baby, I’m comin’ for you” plays as a threat as much as it does a proper hook.
While the single could have been elevated into something more remarkable if that hook were emphasized a bit more (perhaps as a proper transition between the A and B sections), “Hell on Heels” still makes for a smoldering slow burn. Ultimately, it’s the performances that sell it. Their individual turns are all on point, but it’s the Annies’ three-part harmonies on the song’s refrain that make the single so distinctive, recalling another country-inspired trio. Like the Sirens voiced by Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Harris in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Pistol Annies use their sultry, seductive voices to lure unsuspecting victims to their doom before ensnaring the next one and the next one and the next one…