(Sony Nashville *** ½)
Pistol Annies is a three-woman supergroup whose collective strength is greater than the sum of its parts. The big name is Miranda Lambert, the formidable East Texas songwriter whose output over the last decade of tough-minded and contemplative tunes can stand with that of artists of any genre, but her fellow Pistols, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, are very much her equal when it comes to writing acutely observed, emotionally resonant story songs.
Interstate Gospel has a bit of fun with pointed tunes like "Got My Name Changed Back," a delightful divorce song sung by Lambert, whose former spouse is country star Blake Shelton. "Well I got me an ex that I adored," she sings, "But he got along good with a couple of road whores." But along with the sass in playful tunes like "Sugar Daddy" and "Stop Drop and Roll One," there's heartache and subtlety and seriously ambitious songwriting on Interstate Gospel, which is the Annies' third album. The women share vocals and songwriting credit on songs like "The Best Years of My Life," which aches with the awareness that the prime of life slipping away, and "Milkman," which imagines a mother who might have been more sympathetic to her daughter's wild ways if she had only spent some time sinning herself. — Dan DeLuca
(EMI Nashville *** stars)
"I rock to my own rhythm, I roll to my own beat," Eric Church sings on the R&B-inflected "Hangin' Around." In truth, Church has risen to stardom while cutting his own figure in the country mainstream, even if he's not a full-fledged outlaw on the level of Waylon and Willie.
He drives that point home by opening Desperate Man with "The Snake," a dread-dripping, spoken-sung parable that's about as far from country radio as you can get, and he reaffirms his coolness by co-writing the title song with the great Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Church can also still do the conventional stuff well, too, from the opposites-attract tale of "Heart Like a Wheel" to "Hippie Radio," a paean to the power of song, and the self-explanatory "Jukebox and a Bar."
On the final track, "Drowning Man," Church takes a not-so-veiled swipe at the shallowness of some of his country brethren: "Don't tell me about no beach / Don't want to hear about your mountain / How the good life is a peach / Drink your sunsets from a fountain." Sure, his alternative romanticizes drinking to an extent, but at least Church acknowledges life has some dark sides that can't be ignored. — Nick Cristiano
After guest bits on records by dance pop doyens Craig David and DJ Mustard, Brit R&B singer-songwriter Ella Mai goes out on her own with a self-titled album that has, in its first seven days of release, achieved gold status. It's not hard to hear why. The strains of the funky familiar litter the baritone's song list without sounding copy-cattish. Her best work — the moody mid-tempo love song "Boo'd Up," the dramatically trilling ballad "Trip" — is reminiscent of 1980s/'90s hit-making producer Nick Martinelli. Think that South Philly producer's pop-and-slap percussion and flirty synth-strings for Stephanie Mills and Loose Ends' "Hangin on a String (Contemplating)," and you get a feel for Mai's cool, cloudy, old (synthetic) soul.
Beyond those cuts, Mai rushes her words and slows her emotions like a femme Drake through the pulsating but harmony-driven bad-boy paeans "Dangerous" and "Whatchamacallit" (the latter features trouble man Chris Brown). She gets cozy and cooing with another duet partner, balladeer John Legend, on the slinky "Everything." All by her lonesome, Mai allows her voice to emulate the synth wash that pushes "Cheapshot" to a soulful shore and shows off a new brand of body-positive romanticism on the lovely, spare — and acoustic — "Naked." Subtle and comfortably humming, Ella Mai is one of nu-R&B's most charming debuts. — A.D. Amorosi