Published Apr 23, 2018After The Blade garnered Ashley Monroe her first Grammy nomination, the singer could have stuck with a proven sound and approach to songwriting that had been met with widespread critical acclaim. Instead, Sparrow finds Monroe boldly embracing a string-laden and soulful brand of country that variously brings to mind "Ode to Billie Joe," Elvis at American Studios, Dusty in Memphis, Mickey Newbury, Tumbleweed Connection or Glen Campbell's work with Jimmy Webb.
Written and recorded in the aftermath of what Monroe called a "therapy-thon," and as the singer was expecting her first child, the full-length is a deliberately paced, often deeply personal song cycle populated by orphans, mothers, fathers, daughters, lovers and leavers that showcases Monroe's undeniable skills as both a writer and an extraordinarily moving vocalist. While there was nothing wrong with Vince Gill's excellent work on Monroe's previous two LPs, calling on Dave Cobb to fill the producer's chair this time around turned out to be inspired choice; his warm, sympathetic production brings out the best in Monroe's songs.
Fiddle and steel guitars have been replaced on Sparrow by ringing acoustic guitars and orchestral beds of strings that build and swirl and soar, adding colour and providing counter melodies without overpowering Monroe's crystalline voice. That voice, which evokes Dolly and Emmylou, is equally capable of sounding palpably fearful on opener "Orphan," sultry and seductive on the slow-burning "Hands On You," pleading and tough on "Wild Love," tender on "This Heaven" or yearning but resigned on the elegant, heartbreaking "Paying Attention." You won't find a line reading that captures loneliness quite like Monroe's on the latter, when she sings "It's snowing in April / Yeah, the winters are long."
If Like A Rose re-introduced Ashley Monroe after several failed attempts at kickstarting her music career, and The Blade was an artistic and critical breakthrough, on the rich, rewarding Sparrow, the singer has found the perfect marriage of songs, arrangements and performances. In the process she has also crafted a captivating Southern Gothic country-soul masterpiece, one that can stand proudly next to the timeless works that inspired it. There may not be a better record to come out of Nashville in 2018. (Warner)