If there has ever been an artist just knocking at the door of super-stardom, its Ashley Monroe. This girl has got talent that blows you away and the looks to match. She can write a song with wit and heart and own a room with those same skills. It is an absolute travesty that she isn't on par with the Miranda Lamberts and Carrie Underwoods of the world. With her latest release, The Blade, Ashley makes a few blatant attempts to crack into that world, but still remains rooted in the sound that we love from her. The Blade is a mixed bag, but there is more good than bad and certainly a great album to give a listen to.
This album essentially works backwards from a musical standpoint. There are great songs all about, but the front half is loaded with songs that have a little more mainstream country appeal, and the end is wrapped up with some great traditional country cuts. I wish more mainstream artists took this approach. By mixing up the sound a little, it gives you something to fall back on. Of course, all artists want success, and I want Ashley to have big hits, I can't fault her for making a calculated attempt at some airplay, but she didn't forget the one that brought her to the dance either. Good for her. Now, although there is a lot more of a slick sound to the beginning of the album, it doesn't mean it's bad by any means. "I Buried Your Love Alive" is a thumping song but has a great haunting message to it. "Bombshell" is a great bridge between mainstream and traditional country. It is a tender ballad with lyrics that fit right in with country greats, but a nice arrangement that keeps one foot in traditional music yet still sounds fresh and modern. This would be an excellent choice for a single. "The Blade" is the exact same: great lyrics, good arrangement, Country enough to make old farts and jackasses happy, contemporary enough for the radio. "You caught the handle and I caught the blade" is a great lyric to build a song around. "Weight Of The Load", "From Time To Time", and "If Love Was Fair" are all pretty solid pop-country songs as well. Even when she is making an attempt at radio play, it isn't really selling out or contrived. It still feels real. The only song I could really do without is the lead single, "On To Something Good" If there is a line between good pop country and bad, this song is tediously tiptoeing it. I don't hate it, but I'm not crazy about it either.
Of course, Ashley shines the most when her raspy voice is taking on straight-up country music. "Dixie" is a mournful swampy country-blues number about dreaming of getting out of her hometown and out of Dixieland. It has a very unique sound that Ashley absolutely owns. That song is juxtaposed with "If The Devil Don't Want Me", a sad breakup song about having nowhere to belong that is absolutely drowning in steel guitar. One could say that "Dixie" is part one and "If The Devil Don't Want Me" is part two, warning people to be careful what they wish for. "Winning Streak" is a ton of fun with its piano, old school rock and roll rhythm, and echoing vocal effects. It sounds like Ashely is channeling her inner Elvis or Johnny Cash from the Sun Studios days, and it works. "Mayflowers" is a Haggard-esque tune about getting through the hard times. The story of hope through despair is as old as the genre itself, and a great throwback to the type of songs that built the genre. Ashley saves her very best effort for last, closing the album with "I'm Good At Leavin'". This song is solid country gold if I ever heard it. When Ashley cranks up the hillbilly to max and lets her honky-tonk roots show, she can really bring the house down. This song is fun, but well written. It'll make you smile and want to dance. It features an accordion. Perfection.
The Blade is an effort in balance. Balancing yesterday with today, Tradition with progress. Success with failure. While this is certainly a little different of a sound for Ashley, it works. She has the chops to make the mainstream stuff still worthwhile and decent. Not many in country music can make that claim. As country music continues to have a problem with women being heard, Ashley Monroe makes it hard for them to keep making excuses. There is no reason why this girl can't be a huge star. She has it all. Hopefully this is the album that sees her take the strides we know she is capable of . The Blade has enough great songs and a lack of bad moments that results in a really good mainstream country album. Check this out if you want to know what country radio could be in an ideal world.
Standout Tracks: "I'm Good At Leavin'", "Mayflowers", "If The Devil Don't Want Me", "Winning Streak", "The Blade", "Bombshell", "Dixie"
"I'm Good At Leavin'"