(RCA Nashville *** 1/2)
Miranda Lambert got heavy on The Weight Of These Wings, the 2016 double album all about heartache and rebuilding her life, written after the breakup of her marriage to The Voice star Blake Shelton. On Wildcard — which follows the satisfying diversion of last year’s superb Interstate Gospel by Pistol Annies, Lambert’s supergroup with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — she lightens up.
Or at least, the Texas-raised country singer doesn’t dwell on unhappy endings. (That might have something to do with her marriage to New York City policeman Brendan McLoughlin, which she announced on Twitter in February, scooping the tabloids.)
Wildcard is a uniformly strong, 14-song collection, with Lambert cowriting every track. She takes care to have her fun. “White Trash” makes light of her inability to get above her raising. “Pretty Bitchin’” takes a good long look in the mirror and can’t see any reason to complain. And on “Way Too Pretty For Prison,” a duet with Maren Morris, the vocal partners decide it would be unseemly to risk murdering a cheating man — better to hire a contract killer.
But while Wildcard doesn’t flaunt its seriousness, Lambert isn’t coasting as a songwriter. She imbues drinking songs such as “Tequila Does,” “Dark Bars,” and the blues-gospel “Holy Water” with substance. And even when singing about “Settling Down,” she refuses to settle, avoiding comforting country clichés about the sanctity of home and instead exploring the tension between the instinct to put down roots and the urge to get away. — Dan DeLuca
Three Chords and the Truth
The title of Van Morrison’s fifth album since early 2017 is songwriter Harlan Howard’s definition of country music. No, the Belfast Cowboy is not going country, nor is he resurrecting vintage blues and jazz chestnuts, as he did on the previous four albums of this prolific stretch.
Rather, Three Chords and the Truth is Morrison in his inimitable role as Celtic soul man, presenting 13 original songs and a Van-ified take on the traditional “Days Gone By.” The set continues his lifelong search for truth and transcendence in an often spirit-crushing world, while trying to keep cynicism at bay. So you get numbers such as “Fame Will Eat the Soul,” a duet with Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers; “In Search of Grace”; and “Does Love Conquer All?” There’s a “Dark Night of the Soul,” but also the declaration in “If We Wait for Mountains” that “the world is full of wonder.”
On the title song and “Early Days,” Morrison recalls the R&B and rock-and-roll, respectively, that fired him as a youth. It’s obvious that the music not only has given meaning to his life, but also continues to help inspire his still-vital artistry. — Nick Cristiano
That dog. is near the top of any reasonable person’s list of bands that should’ve been huge, especially by the standards of the ‘90s noise-pop continuum. They weren’t just biz babies who could Really Sing and Play. They had their own sound: chamber-pop grunge that piled on the three-part harmonies and Petra Haden’s not-always-sweet violin, while still managing to be louder than Weezer (who once gave frontwoman Anna Waronker a lead vocal, as if to illustrate what could’ve been).
This crowdfunded fourth album arrives 22 years after the third and pulls off another balancing act. It doesn’t sound like it could have been made by anyone else, yet it doesn’t sound like any of its predecessors, and it’s as great as anything they’ve ever done. They challenge themselves like no reunion band; you won’t hear a more frenetic rocker in 2019 than “Just the Way,” or a sweeter orchestration than the title tune, a tribute to Rachel Haden’s late jazz-legend dad Charlie. Everything else nestles arrestingly in between, maturing melodically while exploding harder than anyone working their increasingly rarefied circuit. We’ll take a fifth. — Dan Weiss