Amanda Shires is a Nashville-based singer/songwriter and violin extraordinaire. She’s worked with the likes of The Texas Playboy’s, Thrift Store Cowboys, Todd Snider, John Prine, and of course her husband of five years, Jason Isbell. Her solo career, to date, includes six LP’s, beginning with 2005’s mostly instrumental, Being Brave and culminating, thus far, in her latest release, To The Sunset. Her music is generally characterized as Americana, flavored with elements of more strait forward country and folk. Her vocals are often likened to Dolly Parton or EmmyLou Harris, and she, like her husband, draws listeners in primarily with excellent and vivid lyricism.
Album wise, her earlier work is certainly impressive, but lacks a certain coherence. Tracks like “Harmless,” and “My Love (The Storm)” are highlights, but none of those albums seem to be tied together. Instead, virtually every track from her previous five records is interchangeable with one another, and she lacks a true album integrity. This changes, however, with her latest release. From the psychedelic cover art to the expanded instrumentation pallet, from the progressive production to the visual lyricism, To The Sunset feels like something wholly unique in Amanda’s career.
The first big change is the much stronger rock influence which permeates throughout the entire track listing. “Take on the Dark,” uses roaring electric guitars and a driving bass line while “Eve’s Daughter” draws on the proud tradition of southern rock to create an extremely danceable track which stands as one of the brightest moments on the entire project.
Amanda also builds shimmering pop tunes like “Leave it Alone,” and “Swimmer,” through the use of a constant tempo held on a high hat, spacey violin work, and a set of electronic, hip-hop drums which, against all odds, actually blend very well and add a lot to the mix. This is a sound that Shires does very well and I almost wish that it was revisited a few more times on this project.
Its her lyricism, however, that is the true highlight. She writes with confidence and strength, while infusing a small shot of sweetness and feminine energy into every line. “Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” is particularly impressive, as Amanda tells the story of a man leaving his wife at home to commit a particularly brutal form of suicide in his car, and yet she writes with such skill and care that even this story is infinitely listenable. “White Feather,” is fantastic as well, examining themes of weakness, religion, and fear of the other.
All of this is helmed well by the production talent of Dave Cobb. Something of a legend in the new wave of country music, Cobb has worked with the likes of Jason Isbell, The Drive-By Truckers, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, to name a few. He’s certainly known for having made a few questionable creative decisions in a couple of his mixes, but here, as with the vast majority of his discography, Cobb’s work is inspired. The vocal layering on “Charms,” for example is able to simultaneously reference bluegrass roots and look forward to a spacier, more progressive form of country music, and his ability to constantly build and layer culminates in some truly fabulous songs that embrace maximalist aesthetic of record tightly.
The best track on the whole album is, without a doubt, the opener, “Parking Lot Pirouette.” Here, Shires is in top form. Her vocals are powerful and commanding, her lyrics are visual and romanticized, the orchestral instrumentation is mesmerizing, and Cobb balances all of this with skill and moderation. It’s genuinely one of the best singles I’ve heard all year.
It’s hard to find much to complain about with this album. In addition to the successes I’ve already named, the pacing is just about perfect, Amanda’s vocal melodies are remarkably singable, and even “Mirror, Mirror,” which is objectively the least impressive track on the album, has its moments, and one could foresee a time when it would perfectly fit exactly what the ears are craving.
With To the Sunset, Amanda Shires has established herself as one of the most versatile and unique voices within the new country movement, not to mention vastly surpassing the quality of any of her already very respectable previous solo releases. To the Sunset is the most pleasant surprise of 2018 so far!