- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2011

Hell on Heels

Pistol Annies

Columbia Nashville

★★★★

Miranda Lambert may be the new queen of country music, but she doesn’t mind sharing the throne. On this homespun album, she joins forces with fellow crooners Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley to form the Pistol Annies, a tough ‘n’ twangy vocal trio whose songs put a female spin on the outlaw country movement.

Miss Lambert and Miss Monroe have worked together in the past, even writing two songs together for Miss Lambert’s award-winning “Revolution” two years ago. They share equal billing with Miss Presley on these 10 songs, which aren’t meant to showcase the individual members as much as the alchemy that happens when all three sing together. Miss Lambert is still the band’s de facto star - her sassy alto is easily the most recognizable of the bunch, even if Miss Monroe has more control over her voice - but the Pistol Annies fire on all cylinders, not just one.

Country and pop music have become closely linked over the years, eventually reaching the point where a Southern accent is all that separates artists such as Taylor Swift from their poppy sisters. “Hell on Heels” pitches its tent in genuine country territory, though, bypassing all the glossy tricks of Top 40 music and focusing instead on acoustic guitars, brushed percussion and upright bass. There’s even an old-timey whistle solo on “Lemon Drop.”

Who says that country boys get to have all the fun? On “Housewife’s Prayer,” Miss Presley contemplates setting her house on fire, looking for some way to escape the humdrum life of a stay-at-home wife. Several songs later, Miss Lambert puts her trailer on the market, having decided to kick out her deadbeat partner and find a better home. The title track offers up much of the same, with the three singers hatching plans to “break a million hearts.” You can’t tame a Pistol Annie.

More than 20 years ago, Dolly Parton teamed up with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris to record “Trio,” an album that paved the way for vocally driven female groups such as the Dixie Chicks. “Hell on Heels” may not benefit from the star power that made “Trio” a hit - Miss Lambert is the group’s only celebrity, after all, and Miss Presley was all but unknown before she joined the lineup - but few debut albums are this solid, with songs that are smartly written and gorgeously performed. Kudos to Miss Lambert for turning what could’ve been a tossed-off vanity project into a genuine supergroup, and props to the other members for holding their own against a superstar.

Here For a Good Time

George Strait

MCA Nashville

★★

Speaking of country royalty, George Strait returns this week with “Here For a Good Time,” another mixed bag of Western swing, traditional country and straight-ahead ballads. At 59, he’s nearly three times as old as some of the genre’s other leading lights. Mr. Strait sticks to what he does best, though, slowing most of the songs down to a midtempo stroll and keeping the production tight, peppy and polished.

There’s certainly nothing off-putting about these songs, which spend their time ruminating on familiar topics such as the South, alcohol and middle age. There’s nothing surprising here, either, with most of the songs sounding as though they could’ve come from any of Mr. Strait’s 20-plus albums.

That’s probably the point. The man’s fans have come to expect a certain sound, and Mr. Strait, one of the highest-selling artists in American history, has no reason to throw them a curveball. Still, when a game is this predictable, where’s the fun in being a spectator?

‘Achtung Baby’ reissue

U2’s success is generally attributed to the band’s unmatched ability to adapt to modern trends. On “Achtung Baby,” though, the guys actually set the trend, exploring an experimental, industrial sound that helped give rise to the ‘90s alternative rock scene.

Twenty years later, the album is about to be released again - Nov. 1, to be exact - this time as a deluxe box set. There are five versions to choose from, running the gamut from a single-disc reissue to an “Uber Deluxe Edition,” which includes four DVDs, six CDs, multiple art prints and even a pair of Bono’s iconic “Fly” sunglasses.