Sometimes it's hard to be a woman.
Angaleena Presley's new album, Wrangled, is chock full of disappointed gals. It's brilliant and subtle and won't make Presley, who's in St. Paul tonight performing at Vieux Carré, the Nashville star she seemingly still wants (but is seemingly no longer trying) to be.
Presley emerged in 2010 as one-third of the Pistol Annies, Miranda Lambert's brilliant trio of harmonizing singer-songwriters. She had to wait till 2014 to release a solo record, but American Middle Class was a great one. Songs like “Pain Pills” not only document the ills suffered in small-town “real America” but uncover how deluded and hypocritical the sufferers can be about their situation. “There's good Christian women locking their front doors/ Praying their daughters don't turn into meth whores/ While their sons are out drinkin' and drivin' and trying to get laid” (from “Dry County Blues”) says more than every Beltway hack's blinkered post-election foray into “Trump County” combined. Shelve J.D. Vance's lame Hillbilly Elegy and listen to American Middle Class.
Wrangled is less topical than the debut, its scope narrower, its sound quieter. The opener, “Dreams Don't Come True,” sets the tone, thematically and musically. Pregnancy derails one woman's ambition to be “Elvis, but with lipstick and boobs,” leaving her no better off than “those whores in high school” she'd hoped to show up, her story told through the hushed, lush harmonizing of the Pistol Annies.
The regrets just accumulate from there. On the title track, a wife and mom would “rather eat dirt than bake another prize-winning cherry pie.” On “High School” (with supporting harmony murmurs from Ivy and Sophie Walker) there's yet another unplanned pregnancy, as a teen tries to camouflage her condition. The mood can be grim and even gothic -- when one of these put-upon ladies finally lashes back on “Only Blood” and offs her abusive preacher husband on the advice of her Lord and Savior, there's none of the rowdy swagger of a revenge fantasy like Miranda Lambert's “Gunpowder and Lead,” and the subdued calm is chilling.
“Only Blood” is basically a female murder ballad, co-opting a genre that dudes mainly monopolized, one of a few times on Wrangled that Presley flips male conventions to reveal double standards. The title of “Mama I Tried” is an obvious reference to Merle Haggard's “Mama Tried,” but where Hag sang about how his good home-raisin' couldn't keep him from hell-raisin', Presley's unwed middle-aged woman is apologizing for not landing herself a man. And “Outlaw” adopts the term Willie and Waylon wore as a badge of male Nashville outsider honor only to insist that she doesn't want to be one: “I want to be a straight-shootin', hifalutin rider on the hit parade.”
Like “Dreams Don't Come True,” “Outlaw” addresses the career frustrations that Presley hasn't been shy to bring up in interviews, and she's got a point -- tonight, she's not playing the Xcel like Lambert, after all, or even First Ave like critic's darlin' Margo Price. Presley hauls off directly on Nashville with “Country,” a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” of bro-country cliches catalogued with delirious venom. “Blue jeans, tight jeans, cut-off jeans/ Jeans jeans jeans jeans,” she drawls, cynically announcing “here comes the hook.” And there's a guest verse from southern rapper Yelawolf to prove she's not being stodgy about this.
There are moments of hope on Wrangled, such as “Cheer Up Little Darling,” co-written with Guy Clark just before his death, and moments of real fire too: Presley takes on backhanded southern graciousness with the threat “If you bless my heart I'll smack your face” and collaborates with her spiritual godmother Wanda Jackson on the clattering “Good Girl Down.” But there's a lot of defeat too. From Loretta Lynn through Miranda Lambert, country music's version of feminism has typically been an expression of indomitable spunk in the face of male cruelty and stupidity. Wrangled suggests that maybe rowdy, wise-cracking resilience ain't enough for put-upon women any more.
Where: Vieux Carré
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Apr. 27
Tickets: $15, more info here