Ashley Monroe
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Ashley Monroe ‘The Blade’ – Album Review

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When Ashley Monroe’s second full-length album ‘Like A Rose’ debuted in 2013, it affirmed what a plethora of fans and industry folk already knew: that the songstress was a phenomenal singer, songwriter, and general badass. She has originally acquired this reputation when at 19 years old she recorded ‘Satisfied’, an album that even then showcased her sense of maturity and deep emotional connection with real country music. From there she laid low, writing and providing backing vocals for bigger stars in the industry, before launching alongside friends Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies in 2011. All of these components came together to make her a major critics’ darling, no longer Nashville’s Best Kept Secret.

Since the release of ‘Like A Rose’ Ashley has got married, had a #1 hit (albeit as a duet partner to Blake Shelton on his single ‘Lonely Tonight’), and honed her craft (not that it needed any honing). The groove-laden retro summer song ‘On To Something Good’ (full single review here) has thus far reached the top 60 following an exhaustive radio tour, a fact that doesn’t do justice to the track’s brilliant lyric. “Lost or found, I’m better dancing when I don’t look down, hard times show up but they don’t hang around, I feel like I’m on to something good, I’m better moving on than going back, I’ll ride this train til it run out of track, I feel like I’m on to something,” she sings on the chorus, demonstrating her rare ability to write a happy song that is neither cheesy nor uninspired; her knack for deft, effortless turns of phrase is something lost on the pop-country clones of the day.

To say that Ashley Monroe has found her groove would be to throw out a thinly-veiled pun referencing this album’s sense of rhythm and movement. Where ‘Like A Rose’ was a wholly traditionally-orientated record with beat not a priority, ‘The Blade’ opts for infectious basslines, prominent drums and varying tempos that modernize and commercialize her sound without allowing her to subsume into a homogenous landscape. From the heartbroken cabaret stomp of ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ to the foot-tapping, honky-tonkin’ quick pace of ‘Winning Streak’, Ashley uses rhythm to convey mood and emotion, and drives us to interact with it. The way in which rhythm is incorporated forces us to interpret the songs in a different way than we would have done otherwise, taking us beyond making a song “funky” for the sake of it and into the realms of firing creatively on all cylinders.

As with her previous records, ‘The Blade’ continues to showcase Ashley’s ability to craft a number of self-contained stories, writing from the perspective of several characters that don’t necessarily reflect her own situation. The spark comes, however, when we feel her unload her own heartbreaks into her performances (even if she doesn’t specifically relate), setting the songs alight and allowing them to connect with her audience. The title track, for example, is an expertly-written masterpiece that is certainly one of the best songs of any genre in 2015. “You caught it by the handle and I caught by the blade,” she sings to an ex-lover who wants to be friends, the tears in her eyes practically audible as she finds a new, original way to describe how heartbreak affects two people differently. She expands on this subject further in the driving country pop flavor of ‘If Love Was Fair’, musing on the aftermath of a relationship and how it would be utterly different if love was fair. There’s no doubt; Ashley Monroe is the undisputed Queen of Heartbreak.

But as with lead single ‘On To Something Good’, the beauty of this album is the way it weaves in cheerier sentiments with the same level of poetry and adept understanding of the complexity of emotion as her saddest songs possess. ‘Weight of The Load’, for example, is a charming little indie pop tune assuring a loved one that they will be there to help with the hard times, while the serene, harmonious Americana of ‘From Time To Time’ looks to pass on hope where there is none.

Even the simple love songs have a way of looking at things from a different perspective. ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’ is an older song, originally released in 2009 on Ashley’s self-titled EP and as part of the songwriting collective Ten Out of Tenn, but it’s a gem that fits in beautifully with the rest of this record. The piano-led country ballad describes her feelings for someone in a kind of letter asking if anybody has ever expressed those same sentiments to them, in such a way that is both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. The bluegrassy, Alison Krauss-esque ‘Mayflowers’, meanwhile, serves as a metaphor for the thing that makes her partner smile after the hard times have passed, and how she will happily wait to pick those flowers because it will be worth it when she does. It is told in such a loving way that it is hard not to imagine Ashley singing it directly to her husband, John Danks.

Sonically, much of ‘The Blade’ retains a sense of traditionalism but pushes itself into new territory, drawing upon a more mainstream country pop sound in addition to Americana. However, for fans of twang, Ashley is sure to include tracks that stay firmly rooted in that musical bed. ‘Dixie’, for example, is a swampy jaunt echoing the mountain ballads of old and desperately wishing to get out of Dixie to escape from her past of sin and events she’d rather forget. ‘I’m Good At Leavin’’, meanwhile, opts for a Nashville Sound base and Celtic folk flavor to detail a rambler’s struggles with sticking around, just as ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’ becomes an instant country classic in its melancholic embracing of sin and drowning in loneliness.

If ‘Like A Rose’ was chapter two – the breakthrough – in Ashley Monroe’s career, then ‘The Blade’ is chapter three – where she settles into her stride. There is enough musical development to keep listeners interested and still enough loyalty to her roots that it sounds quintessentially country, and quintessentially Monroe. The tear in her voice, outstanding emotional interpretation and ability to craft incredible lyrics time after time is something that shines through no matter which musical direction she’s headed down, and reminds us that after trends have died and flash-in-the-pan superstars are no longer courted by country radio, there will always be Ashley Monroe. Never broken, never wavered. Still making great music.

Originally posted here.