A show of self: Ashley Monroe, Cardi B, John Prine

Ashley Monroe – Sparrow

For listeners who love strings, Dave Cobb can arrange them. Whether lending a baby-I’m-burnin’ urgency to “Hard on a Heart” or buttressing the I-love-my-baby ardor of “She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me),” they’re apposite and pleasurable in themselves. This goes double for Ashley Monroe’s velvet-covered croon, earthbound by design despite a sun-kissed ethereality (the Mellotron in “I’m Trying To” is heaven sent too). But even if the strings were schlock and the singing mediocre Sparrow would still work because the songwriting is strong. Two songs about parents (“Daddy I Told You,” “Mother’s Daughter”) allude to private disappointments for which Monroe shows sympathy. In the album’s most effective mating of form and content, “Rita,” co-written with Nicolle Galyon and Paul Moak, coaxes Monroe into straining her voice ever higher with each question posed by the chorus. If Sparrow has a weakness, it’s a loss of lightness. Even the coiled wonder “Hands on You,” in which she fantasizes about shoving him against the bathroom stall and getting high in a motel room, breathes an air of solemnity. Lee Ann Womack’s equally adult The Lonely, The Lonesome & the Gone , also calibrated to the performer’s strengths, has some thematic variety. To hear the Ashley Monroe who belted 2013’s “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter),” I guess I’ll have to wait until the rumored third Pistol Annies album.

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Hearing “Be Careful” on the radio helped. So did streaming “Bickenhead,” the best example of the kind of sounds this product of a Trinidadian mom and Dominican dad (the J Balvin-Bad Bunny collab “I Like It” sounds like one of their noche buena parties). Film stars don’t “act” in a conventional sense in the same way that Cardi’s rapping constitutes the expression of a personality instead of a demonstration of prowess. Beside her Chance the Rapper is Chance the Chatterbox and YG is OD. The charts need Cardi, and it’s more than enough that Invasion of Privacy zips by in forty-eight minutes.  Will she be on the upcoming Nas album? Hope so.

John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness

A nine-mile cigarette, vodka and ginger ale, seeing his mom and dad — when the best of living American singer-songwriters gets to heaven, he wants these things pronto. Don’t be fooled by the sleeve for his seventeenth studio album: if he’s seen death and death chilled him, he wants it on the rocks. A wise ass to his bones, an ironist with a twinkle in his eye, Prine could have offered these modest tunes the last time he recorded original material in 2006 or 1984, their sensibilities no different whether he’s co-writing them or writing them himself. But pros Roger Cook and Pat McLaughlin couldn’t have come up with “Lonesome Friends of Science” – the year’s most wonderful, evocative title – if they’d spent a year in meditation. Ditto for “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone).” Over acoustic plucks, a wistful organ peel, and piano, the former “I live down deep inside my head/Well, long ago I made my bed.” Another pure product of America who didn’t go crazy offered a similar insight a century ago: “They would not find me changed from him they knew –/Only more sure of all I thought was true.”

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