Published Oct 14, 2014Nashville's embrace of what music critic Jody Rosen has termed "bro country" has had a curious and, it seems to me, beneficial effect on many up-and-coming artists. The glossy tits-and-beer songs that dominate much of commercial country music may be lucrative, but they represent a creative dead end. For the sizable number of songwriters who've doggedly maintained an approach rooted in storytelling (the cornerstone of country music) and social commentary (its cathedral ceiling), every clever, progressive song has landed as a kind of antidote to what's on the radio. Last year, the toast of fans of this particular subgenre was Brandy Clark. This year, expect it to be Angaleena Presley.
The secret weapon in the fabulous trio Pistol Annies (alongside bona fide superstar Miranda Lambert and terrific singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe), Presley has made an album that is as welcome as a spring thaw. Variously a rumination on social inequality (the autobiographical title track), gender politics ("Knocked Up") and mundane, existential angst ("Grocery Store"), American Middle Class is a hugely compelling record on an intellectual level — but that wouldn't mean all that much if the songs and performances weren't so addictive. Though the occasional use of spoken word on the record jars uncomfortably, this debut is about as accomplished as one could reasonably expect. This coal miner's daughter from Kentucky (true story) has some hard-won wisdom to share and the voice to tell it. (Slate Creek Records)