Maren Morris – Hero
“Beware of country producers bearing sequencers,” purists might say from a defensive crouch in Chris Stapleton’s beard. And the song with the sequencer is called “80s Mercedes,” no less. On her major label debut, the Texan hooks up with the fella who’s worked with P!nk, Christina Aguilera, and Daughtry for a series of some of the most delicious electrotwang since Big & Rich. Speaking of “rich,” it’s the name of a whip snapper of a second track that cops the Steve Miller Band for the kind of nyah-nyah hook that’ll delight the jokers and midnight takers at her shows. Wary of introspection but not above a playing the country radio programmer game, Morris errs twice: the raised-on-radio revivalist anthem “My Church” and a blowzy closer called “Once” that might have had a chance at crossover during Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” period.
I want to raise a philosophical point, though, about the response to these new female country performers. Whether it’s Chrissie Hynde, Phair, or Polly Jean Harvey, I’m suspicious when male critics praise women with guitars for self-possession; the purported sexual forthrightness of these acts is taken as a sign of their independence. I’m no psychoanalyst, but too many of the male-penned compliments read like valentines. If Miranda Lambert’s gunpowder and lead make her a a three-dimensional woman, then so do Meghan Trainor’s Powerpoint-deep power games and, stick with me a moment, Selena Gomez’s polymorphous lust, encompassing “metaphorical gin and juice” and who’s to say she’s wrong, and I don’t see either on many year end lists.
And if you’re a woman who doesn’t rock forget it — an infuriating proposition. In country music Carrie Underwood’s ancestor Reba McEntire is no less fascinating for projecting an air of self-possession that she’s willing to abjure when the lights are out and the kids are in bed. Sometimes the self-possession scans as confidence about choosing mildewed material; we know plenty of three-dimensional women who hang Franklin Mint plates in the foyer and keep stuffed animals on the rear dash. Writing and singing about tattooed love boys in a Mercedes aren’t themselves totems of singularity. Rather, the confusion between seeing oneself as an object in someone’s fantasy, calling attention to the fact that one is an object, and criticizing the terms of the objectification gives these performers their allure and, yes, those three dimensions. On her last and strongest album Lambert got herself in a real muddle, and while I’m rooting for her the strain of playing the character she’s inhabited since 2005’s “Kerosene” has produced rote anthems and unpersuasive rebel yells. Absorbing male platitudes about women is the devil’s bargain. In 2016 brazenness in women isn’t a rarity, it’s an expectation, a given, especially in a pop landscape where Rihanna and Beyonce have audiences primed to have their notions of performance and authenticity upended in a most Bowie-esque way.
Where Morris ends up after Hero is a mug’s game. Even with the Shane McAnally co-writes I don’t see many performers covering her tunes: they and her charisma are as indivisible as her rubber-ringed vowels are from the snap of busbee‘s strings. But I can imagine Dustin Lynch reading her mind and pretending to be impressed, or Dierks Bentley wondering if it was somewhere on a beach he saw her and not on the Wednesday night she dumped his stank ass.
Garbage – Strange Little Birds
An example of the subject-object muddle discussed before, Shirley Manson was so gleeful about taking her pleasures where she found them that it didn’t matter that the pleasures went no broader than her collection of Curve albums. Rummaging through several generations of saint, sinner, whore, and angel tropes never sounded as novel as they did on Version 2.0, on which Manson shouted and plead like the tropes were the expressions of a self. On Garbage’s best album since 1998, the band rediscover their talent for hooks, and Manson sounds excited to sing them instead of acting like her number was called at the Public deli counter. After a deadly slow opening, they rip into “Empty,” a Loveless rips so devoid of shame that I’m delighted to think Garbage assumes there are kids who (a) buy new Garbage albums (b) buy Garbage albums (c) will hear “Empty” before “What You Want” and use it as a gateway. The generous mix highlights every sparkle in mid tempo mumblers like “If I Lost You” and “Even Though Our Love is Doomed,” perhaps too generously, for the band’s sculpting acumen outpace Manson’s lyrical imagination, which wouldn’t matter if she sang like a third guitar or whooped like a synth arpeggio. The exception is “Night Drive Loneliness,” fan mail recast as yet another rummage sale.