The Pistol Annies released two excellent albums in 2011 and 2013, each filled to the brim with songs co-written by its three members: Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. In and around those records, Lambert became one of country music’s biggest stars and Monroe was recognized as one of its finest (and most underappreciated singer-songwriters).
Somehow Presley has yet to rise above the level of third banana in this ensemble. That’s not necessarily a shame, but it does feel a bit unfair. Presley may not have the same level of name recognition as her band mates, but the native Kentuckian’s 2014 debut American Middle Class affirmed her as a sharp tunesmith with an inventive take on classic country music. Her follow-up, Wrangled, proves there’s more where that came from.
In a way, Presley’s work neatly splits the difference between Lambert’s wild-eyed defiance and Monroe’s melodic melancholy, and she’s an older soul than either of ‘em. Throwback touches are threaded throughout Wrangled, from the reverberant guitar solo on “Dreams Don’t Come True” (written with the other Annies) to the classic honky-tonk feel of “Only Blood” to the jazzy upright bass line that grounds “Good Girl Down,” a collaboration with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. Even the cover art features retro fonts and fake vinyl record ring wear.
Wrangled isn’t stuck in the past, however. Presley’s vivid tales of love, loss and the everyday life of average folks are as relevant today as they were five decades ago and as they will be five decades from now (assuming we make it that long). Sonically, she takes some risks, setting “Mama I Tried” against a chilly beat and leaving studio background noise here and there in the final mix. These are small things, but in the context of Nashville’s highly airbrushed country-music machine, they make a big difference. Presley feels like a hyper-real presence in a very fake world.
Only once does her boundary pushing go one step too far. The song “Country” is a woozy barnburner that features a verse by the Southern rapper Yelawolf. The rap itself isn’t the problem (though it’s not exactly Yelawolf’s peak, either), and the pushback against bro-country is appreciated. But the song as a whole feels like a good idea that never quite comes into focus. It’s a well-meaning, jumbled mess.
Lack of focus isn’t a recurring problem on Wrangled, though. Song after song features sharp lyrics, sublime melodies, strong performances and suitable production, with Presley cool, calm and collected at the center of it all. She may never be the most famous Pistol Annie, but on her second album, Angaleena Presley proves she belongs right alongside her colleagues as an artist.