Ashley Monroe: The Blade – Review

This is an update to my earlier partial review, in which I gave the opinion that even though I’d only heard half of the album (the pre-released tracks), The Blade was set to be the best album of 2015.

Now I’ve had the whole thing for a week or so, I’m just as firm in that opinion. I still find the modern release cycle annoying, but at least The Blade was available in the UK at the same time it was in the US – even if the UK iTunes store totally ignored it in favour of the stuff they’ve had in ‘New and Notable’ for the last two years.

The three hookiest tracks of The Blade are country-soul songs with a Fleetwood Mac style groove in the rhythm section. These are the opener, ‘On To Something Good’, ‘Weight of the Load’ (co-written with producer Vince Gill), and ‘If Love Was Fair’. I’m pretty sure the bass playing on these three is by Michael Rhodes, who also played bass on Vince Gill’s Guitar Slinger, which features a similar rhythm section groove on ‘Tell Me Fool’. These three tracks stand out to me as the most commercial-sounding, and the most likely to appeal to a broader audience – ‘On To Something Good’ was a good choice as a lead single, even if it was ignored by Country radio. Each one is a fabulous song, lifted by a great middle 8 and just beautifully arranged by the production team.

The album really revolves around five ballads, exemplified by the powerful title track, ‘The Blade’. The others are ‘Bombshell’, ‘From Time to Time’, ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’, and ‘Mayflowers’. These tracks showcase Monroe’s crystal clear and fluid singing voice and her mastery of this kind of material.

Then there are three retro-sounding genre tracks, dipping into the history of country and rockabilly to demonstrate Monroe’s versatility.  ‘Winning Streak’ is done in 50s rockabilly style, complete with Buddy Holly style doo-wop backing vocals. ‘I’m Good at Leavin’’ is a traditional country waltz (could be a Pistol Annie’s track), while ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’ is a standard drinking song, delivered with a timeless arrangement that could have come from any era. What separates these from their templates are the lyrics, which have a contemporary wit and verve, joyful in their updating of country music tropes.

Finally, there are a couple of darker, bluesier numbers. First up is ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’, co-written with Matraca Berg, and the other is ‘Dixie’. I’m less fond of these, but that’s more to do with my personal taste than with the overall quality of the record.

All of the songs here, with the sole exception of the title track, were co-written by Monroe with a variety of top-drawer country songwriters, such as the aforementioned Matraca Berg and Vince Gill, but there are  several written with Berg’s pal Jessi Alexander and even one written with fellow Pistol Annie, Miranda Lambert.

Production is by Vince Gill with Justin Niebank, and Gill also supplies guitar and BVs, with (best in the business) Paul Franklin on pedal steel. The song arrangements really are exquisite. Gill doesn’t supply blistering solos but does layer guitars over guitars. Each part is perfect and a perfect compliment to all the others, and the effect is a shimmering, clean, and open sound that showcases Monroe’s crystal clear vocal perfectly.

Apart from the quality of the songwriting and the great vocal performances, it’s the production sound of this record that makes it my clear album of the year.

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