The Highwomen Are Here, and They’re Incredible

The Highwomen is a benchmark achievement in country music and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.

The Highwomen are a country/americana supergroup based in Nashville, Tennessee. Their formation has been rumored since around 2016 when Amanda Shires spoke out publicly about the lack of female representation on country radio and hinted at the idea of a group of talented female musicians. In April of 2019, the group was officially announced with a lineup of Shires, grammy award winning songstress, Brandi Carlile and up and coming pop-country super star, Maren Morris. The group originally intended to leave the fourth slot open for a rotating door of guest artists, but during their performance at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday, grammy nominated songwriter, Natalie Hemby was announced as the fourth member. The buzz for new music was deafening and, just a few months after their official formation, they’ve dropped their self-titled debut.

Before we even touch on the performances of members themselves, we simply have to touch on the incredible instrumentation across the album, from the warbling organ on “Redesigning Women,” to Jason Isbell’s roaring guitar work on tracks like “Don’t Call Me,” and “Old Soul.” The latter is especially impressive as the song’s longer runtime is carried proudly by the intricate and well performed instrumentals.

Additionally, I’m astounded by the group’s ability and willingness to recreate the old-school style of icons like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. Cuts like “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” and “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk,” feature the classic, walking bass and saloon piano of country music’s golden era, yet lyrically, the songs delve into modern, relatable storytelling in a beautiful way.

This, of course, brings us to the lyricism which is seriously breathtaking. The opening title track, which follows the narratives of women throughout history who were killed for being brave, empowered women against the wishes of their cultures.  “If She Ever Leaves Me,” is a powerful love ballad which co-writer Jason Isbell aptly called “a gay country song,” as it follows the story of a woman bragging to a man that the love of her wife is hers and hers alone. But perhaps best of all, is the heart wrenching, “Cocktail and a Song,” in which Amanda Shires recounts the last moments with her terminally ill father with such brilliance and bravery that it is genuinely hard to listen to at times.

The album’s best quality, though, comes in the excellent vocal performances of everyone involved. Brandi Carlile’s smooth alto is captivating on the closer, “Wheels of Laredo,” and Natalie Hemby’s belting leads on “My Only Child,” are especially exciting as she’s primarily known as a songwriter, while Amanda Shires’ bright soprano rings out over nearly every harmony. Maren Morris is particularly impressive for me as, going into the project, I was unsure how she’d be effected by having far less experience than the women around her. Despite this, she brings some of the best moments with a power and fearlessness that allows her to comfortably hold her own among the bonafide legends on this LP.

The women are at their best, above all, when they’re together. The harmonies on this album are some of the best I’ve heard in several years and easily the most thoughtful harmonies in mainstream music today. Tracks like “Loose Change,” and “Crowded Table,” feature full, four part harmonies in which each part carries a unique and creative melody. That just doesn’t exist in music anymore. There is so much power generated when the four of them come fully together on choruses that the results have me replaying tracks time and time again.

All in all, I have very little to complain about. The production from Dave Cobb, while perfectly competent, is a bit uninspired and not quite as crisp as it could be, and there are a handful of lyrics that come off as a bit cheesy, but the majority of the LP is nearly perfect.

The group’s tight harmonies, brilliant lyricism, and full grasp of every facet of the genre from old-school honky-tonk to modern Americana, makes for a spectacular listen. The pacing is perfect, as is the complex and talented musicianship behind them.

The Highwomen is a benchmark achievement in country music and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.

9/10

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Maren Morris Gives Her All on Mixed Sophomore Project

GIRLS is at times fun, at times disappointing, but at every turn frustratingly less than what it could have been.

Maren Morris is a pop-country singer from Nashville, Tennessee. She debuted with a self-titled EP in 2015 which found massive success and put Morris on the map and landed her a deal with Columbia Records. The EP was rereleased on the label with yet another wave of positive reception and kicked off a tour as a supporting act for Keith Urban. In 2016, she released her debut LP, Hero which was yet another impressive success. The album peaked at number five on the Billboard charts and netted four Grammy nominations including Best Country Album and a win for Best Country Solo Performance on “My Church.” Early this month, Maren was announced as a third member of the supergroup, The Highwomen, joining forces with Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires with a fourth slot filled by a revolving door of women, including Sheryl Crow and Margo Price among others. With her career booming, Maren Morris’ second LP, GIRL is here, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

It’s clear from the first moment that Morris is perfectly willing to experiment on this project. The opening title track and the closer, “Shade,” are especially notable, both for their genre-bending styles and their fairly unique chord progressions. She’s certainly not reinventing the wheel, but what small risks she does take pay off thanks to a full commitment on each cut and the refreshing nature of hearing a new idea in modern, mainstream country.

Melodically, this album is extremely listenable. Tracks like “Gold Love,” or “To Hell & Back,” will be stuck in your head for days thanks to Maren’s ability to write extremely singable vocal lines. While much of the instrumental work behind her is a bit cookie cutter, Morris’ work picks up much of the slack.

This brings us to what is, by far, this records strongest quality and, at a few points, its saving grace. Maren Morris’ vocal performances are purely excellent. Even on a relatively silly song like “The Feels,” every second is believable because of her passion and energy. The same is true for “Great Ones,” later in the tracklist. Yet again, we have a song that is fairly forgettable if not for the powerful and dynamic voice leading it.

This being said, much of the record comes up mixed for me and the lyrics are one such area. Perhaps the best song on the entire project, “A Song for Everything,” is exactly what I ask for from this kind of an album. We have a unique theme, a few quirky turns of phrase, and an overall fun listen. Much of the album, however, feels somewhat lazy and rushed, with several lines coming off as cheesy and shallow.

Instrumentation, on the other hand, is almost uniformly weak across the entire runtime. Aside from the Brothers Osborne feature on “All My Favorite People,” essentially every other second of the album is completely uninventive and thoughtless. “Make Out With Me,” is likely the worst offender here as its structure seems to evoke the kinds of lush, orchestral arrangements of artists like Amanda Shires and Sturgill Simpson, the actual education just leans on a boring, shallow synth and a few cheap sounding violins.

Even worse than this is the production. Tracks like “Flavor,” and “Good Woman,” feel totally lifeless, not to mention the poorly placed effects. This is especially irritating on a song like “Common,” where strong lyrics and a fairly enjoyable Brandi Carlile feature are ruined by flat mixing and boring production.

Branching off from the production comes the record’s worst quality: the over reliance on bottled, looped drums. This is a pervasive trend across country music, largely driven by acts like Florida Georgia Line, in which a real drummer is replaced with computerized drums. The goal is to save money and modernize the sound a bit, but instead it sucks the life out nearly every track on which it’s tried and the same is true for GIRLS. “RSVP,” and “The Bones,” are especially egregious, but nearly all of this album suffers as a result of this choice.

All in all, GIRLS is a fun listen. It’s a good sophomore project for Maren Morris and she puts in quite the effort, but it’s undercut by a lack of such effort from everyone else involved.

GIRLS is at times fun, at times disappointing, but at every turn frustratingly less than what it could have been.

4/10