Wednesday, May 08 2013 01:33 PM

Country's compelling ladies taking center stage

BY CHRIS RICHARDS The Washington Post

Listen in on Nashville and you'll hear them leaning in.

Across the vast, combative realms of pop music, country is the genre where women are delivering today's most compelling tunes. They're the songwriters with the most courage and vim. They're the singers with the widest emotional breadth. They're the risk-takers. The provocateurs. The searchers. The storytellers.

You can hear it in an avalanche of new albums from the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Gretchen Wilson, Lori McKenna and Caitlin Rose.

And -- heads up -- here comes another one from Pistol Annies, a trio that includes Monroe, Angaleena Presley and Miranda Lambert, a Grammy-toting singer with a diamond-cut voice that's never shone more brilliantly.

The group's second album, "Annie Up," somehow manages to trump the vitality of its first. And while the trio hasn't completely ditched the winky-nudgey sense of humor that made 2011's "Hell on Heels" such a blast, this is a darker portrait of 21st-century American womanhood.

Across a dozen tracks, the singers waltz through a scorched landscape of rotten marriages, ugly divorces, punishing depressions and suffocating addictions -- sometimes with enough good cheer to turn your abs sore with laughter while you mop up your puddly cheeks. Yet, for a band that sings about the claustrophobic societal constraints placed on women, Pistol Annies always sing with an unflinching intensity that makes anything and everything feel possible.

And maybe the reason country music feels so electric with potential right now is because it felt so stiff in the previous decade. That's when Natalie Maines of the multi-platinum Dixie Chicks wandered off into quasi-exile. You might remember why.

"Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas," Maines announced to a London crowd in 2003, bashing the policies of then-President George W. Bush and stoking a backlash from country radio that left lasting psychic scars. Maines and her Dixie Chicks responded with their 2006 masterstroke, "Taking the Long Way," but when the band went on hiatus in 2007, Maines disappeared.

Now she's back with her first solo album, "Mother," which features clean renditions of mid-tempo songs by Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley, Eddie Vedder and Patty Griffin. But it feels like a somewhat tentative step back into the spotlight, considering the emotive heft of the three cuts Maines had a hand in writing. "There's only one road in and out of my heart," she sings on "Take It on Faith," a ballad co-penned with producer Ben Harper. "I don't know where it ends or where it starts."

The other disappointment here has nothing to do with the music, but the marketing -- "Mother" is being pushed out into the universe as a rock album, not a country album. And that's a shame. The community that shut Maines out a decade back could use a few more defiant voices in today's conversation.

And while there's nothing defiant about Lady Antebellum, even this squeaky-clean, wildly successful, co-ed country trio appears to have been nudged by the changing tides.

Gender equality is practically built into the group's dynamic, but previously, lead vocalists Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley have only used it to add a latent sizzle to their slow-burning love songs.

That's changing ever so slightly on "Golden," the band's fifth and finest album. Yeah, some of these songs make Scott and Kelley sound like they're falling in love from inside the frame of a Norman Rockwell painting, but on the album's first single, "Downtown," Scott is making demands.

"I don't know why you don't take me downtown," she sings, fed up with being stood up every Saturday night. "Like you got anywhere better to be."

The song has a refreshing bite that Lady Antebellum often lacks, but the album's most interesting moment comes during "Better Man," a ballad where Kelley promises to be just that.

Then Scott joins in for the final verse and the narration switches from "I" to "we." In a world where womanhood is too often defined by men, here's a song about manhood where the woman subtly gets the last word.

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