'Girls like us, we don't mess around. . . . Don't girls like us make the world go around and around," the Pistol Annies declare on their new album.
One thing's for sure: The three young singers and songwriters back up their boast while providing quite a boost for hard-core country music, and Annie Up (RCA ****), released Tuesday, tops a spate of new releases by name country acts.
Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe (who also has a terrific new solo album, Like a Rose) pick up where they left off on 2011's Hell on Heels.
The spare, tangy arrangements avoid any of the gloss you'll find in most mainstream country productions, and their songs likewise don't sugarcoat. Whether they're venting a Loretta Lynn-style feistiness ("I Feel a Sin Comin' On," "Unhappily Married") or delivering affecting ballads ("Trading One Heartbreak for Another," "Dear Sobriety"), they probe with a frankness that reflects real life, but is still hugely entertaining.
When it comes to rocking country, it's hard to think of a star who does it better than Eric Church. Caught in the Act: Live (EMI Nashville ***1/2) provides ample evidence of that. Church commands the stage with a swaggering authority, and it's obvious he's most in his element up there, as these performances are superior to the fine studio versions.
Like other young country singers, Church references greats such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, but unlike most he doesn't need to do that to try to establish credibility. And he has the goods to call out the pretenders ("Lotta Boot Left to Fill"). The same goes for his invocation of the Boss - his hit "Springsteen" is the perfect capper to a galvanic set.
The dynamic freshness of the Pistol Annies and Church puts the tedium of Kenny Chesney in even sharper relief. On Life on a Rock (Columbia Nashville **), the superstar is still extolling the soul-soothing effects of chilling on a sandy, sun-splashed isle. It doesn't even rise to the level of guilty-pleasure escapism, because most of the time he tries to make this shallowness sound achingly profound.
He offers no big, crowd-pleasing anthems this time. The best are small-scale efforts - the empathetic portrait "Lindy" and "Must Be Something I Missed," the only number that even hints at something deeper. But if you want to hear Chesney do reggae, here's the chance: On "Spread the Love" he's joined by the Wailers and Elan.
Willie Nelson, who turned 80 last week, guests on Chesney's album, but he also has one of his own. Let's Face the Music and Dance (Legacy ***) focuses on standards such as the Irving Berlin title song, "Walking My Baby Back Home," and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," while also spreading out for selections ranging from Carl Perkins' "Matchbox" to a Django Reinhardt instrumental. As with his landmark Stardust, this material is right in Nelson's wheelhouse. (Not to be confused with Brad Paisley's uneven new Wheelhouse, which we reviewed earlier.) With seeming effortlessness, he makes it all seem of a piece, with tastefully understated arrangements highlighting sister Bobbie Nelson's piano, Mickey Raphael's harmonica, and Willie's own Trigger (his battered guitar).
The always-willing Nelson - let's call him America's musical guest - also turns up on the latest by the Randy Rogers Band, Trouble (MCA Nashville ***). He sings on "Trouble Knows My Name," the kind of no-frills country-rocker that this Texas band excels at. There's plenty more of it on Trouble, along with solid ballads like the rueful set-closer "I Never Got Around to That" that again show these guys know how to deliver heart-on-their-sleeve earnestness without ever getting sappy.
Blake Shelton may have gone to Hollywood, where he has become a TV star on The Voice, but he wants you to know he hasn't gone Hollywood. Throughout Based on a True Story . . . (Warner Nashville **1/2), the Oklahoma native strives to assure listeners that he's still the faithful good ole boy. It's fairly predictable stuff, delivered with plenty of production polish. But Shelton, who's married to the Pistol Annies' Lambert (the Annies guest on "Boys 'Round Here"), puts it over with a lot more charm than, say, Jason Aldean. That's partly because, on numbers such as "Sure Be Cool If You Did," he's not afraid to undercut his own macho bluster.
Lastly, Alan Jackson returns with Precious Memories II (EMI Nashville ***1/2), the sequel to his 2006 collection of familiar hymns. As with the first volume, these selections, including "Amazing Grace" and "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," make for a quietly stirring set, delivered with all the grace and dignity we've come to expect from this most modest of superstars.