Angaleena Presley's strong solo debut album, American Middle Class, is sure to be lumped in with work from country's other prominent female singers from the last few years. This association is partially because Presley first gained attention as a member of the Pistol Annies with Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert. It also happens by default because so few of the mass-appeal records coming out of Nashville right now are made by women (just five of the top 25 Hot Country Songs currently feature lead female vocals).
But Angaleena (pronounced Anj-aleena) exists separately from her partners in the Pistol Annies -- or from other ladies she might be compared to, like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark. Lambert is one of the most dominant figures in country, capable of breaking country radio's moratorium on women and releasing an expansive album -- one of the year's best -- that can please traditionalists and open-minded audiences alike. Musgraves also managed a couple of hits; Monroe and Clark have found success as major songwriters in addition to being solo artists.
Though she has a few songwriting credits, Presley is an outsider by comparison. This might be why she didn't try to capitalize on the success of the Pistol Annies (unlike Ashley Monroe, who released Like a Rose a few months before the Annies' second album, Annie Up). There may not have been a need to rush anyway -- Presley's sound is unlikely to break through on current radio, as there are no drum loops or pop-friendly hooks here. (Aside from Lambert, Carrie Underwood and newcomers Maddie & Tae, most female country singers have ignored their genre's increased hybridization with other formats.)
Presley's refusal to adopt a radio-friendly sound underscores that American Middle Class is her show. She brings in star writers on occasion -- including Luke Laird and Bob DiPierro, who have credits on more than 10 country No. 1s each -- but Presley wrote or co-wrote everything here. She cites Willie Nelson's The Red-Headed Stranger as an inspiration for American Middle Class, and her album is similarly elegant and spare.
Like other traditional-minded country singers who have released music recently -- Sturgill Simpson, a fellow Kentuckian, offers a prominent example -- Presley is determined to shine the spotlight on people's troubles. Check the song titles: "Dry County Blues," "Pain Pills," "Knocked Up," "Drunk," "Surrender." This is not a time of plenty for the American Middle Class that provides the album with its title. Though country radio often offers escape, singers like Presley prefer to remind listeners that it's grim out there.
American Middle Class is a long way from country's mainstream in sound as well as theme. Presley -- and her husband, Jordan Powell, who served as producer -- fill the album with acoustic playing, light percussion and pretty male-female harmonies. There's not much to suggest this music was made in the past 30 years.
Presley believes firmly in narrative, a hallmark of traditional country. Take a song like "Grocery Store": "Standing in line at the grocery store in February, it's as cold as it gets," Presley sings. "Standing in line in front of me there's a little girl no coat on, her mama's buying tampons and cigarettes." The song continues to follow several different characters, all of whom pass through the grocery store. The way Presley takes pleasure in the little things, in getting the scene just right -- that's the payoff.
Some of the songs gain spark from their humor. "Dry County Blues" is cheeky as well as tragic. The hook -- "half the county's laid off, laid up or getting high" -- points to the pervasiveness of substance abuse while also relying on the easy cadence of a drinking song. "Knocked Up" incorporates some kick drum for extra heft. "Here it comes, what granny's been a-dreadin'," sings Presley, not sounding too upset about a "belly full of a baby and a shotgun wedding." "Drunk" has a pronounced electric-guitar lead and a firm backbeat. Presley tells off a no-good man: "I'm leaving, you're staying -- drunk."
American Middle Class is a focused collection of songs. Presley refuses to compromise her sound or ignore the political and social realities of her community back home in Kentucky. But it's important to remember that Lambert does those things too -- while also working with a sound that resonates in today's country climate. More singers could learn from her example.