Okay, I have the griddle heating up for pancakes, so I need to knock this one out. Ashley Monroe. I'd never heard of her before this week (no surprise, given my abundantly lacking knowledge in the genre of country), but even Rhapsody's tagline for this album says that critics are "flipping" for it. This is also her second album (her first went unreleased for two years), and her other project is a band with Miranda Lambert and Angeleena Presley called Pistol Annies. Oh, and I found an interview with Monroe on The Boot which provides lots of great biographical information, such as the fact that her father died when she was 13, and that many of her songs are at least inspired by her own life (such as title track "Like A Rose", which changes details but remains somewhat auto-biographical). She also explains her honest writing by saying "I've come into myself musically and as a woman and I hope to keep growing. If you don't grow, you die." Hip hip hooray!
That leaves us with the music. On a purely instrumental level, this record is pretty much high-quality traditionalist fare, with fiddle, piano, and everything else it takes to capture a timeless country spirit. It's the lyrics that really stand out to me, however, since they manage to accomplish the traditional country task of finding new ways to express age-old human themes (love, loss, drinking, etc.) in a way that many other current country records don't even aim for (see Luke Bryan and his spring break fever - call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure going commando under a Miller Lite towel wasn't one of the issues our forefathers found important). What's most amazing about this new Ashley Monroe release, however, is that despite Rhapsody's classification of the record as "New Country", it not only effortlessly embodies the soul of older (and BETTER - whoops, did I say that???) country music, but it also ADDS to the genre with a frank female perspective that I've found rare, even amongst woman artists.
Let's look at some examples. In "Two Weeks Late", a crying fiddle and jangly piano highlight the listener's transition from believing Monroe's rent hasn't been paid on time ("Landlord's at the door/And says the rent can't wait/But I'm a dollar short/And two weeks late") to the cloaked but previously hinted-at realization that she's ALSO got a bun in the oven ("I know the Bible says/That you're supposed to wait/But I'm a dollar short/And two weeks late"). Obviously, this subject, along with being at least slightly taboo, is also inherently female. And Monroe doesn't stop pushing boundaries with that track, either: in the delicate "Used", Monroe asserts that her value lies in her difficult past ("In the end I'll be worth a whole lot more/Used"), and she uses the rollicking "Weed Instead Of Roses" to tell her man exactly what she wants to spice up their relationship ("Give me weed instead of roses/Bring me whiskey 'stead of wine/Every puff, every shot/You're lookin' better all the time"). And don't even get me STARTED on the pure fun of "Monroe Suede", whose jaunty plucked bass line follows Monroe as she runs from the law. Basically, the music is great, the songwriting is simple but so compelling that I literally couldn't stop listening, and Monroe's unique perspective is incredibly refreshing. You may also be able to stream this album by signing up on her website (I didn't try that). And now I gotta go - my pancakes and kids are screaming.