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Review: Angaleena Presley, 'American Middle Class'

Angaleena Presley's new album, <em>American Middle Class</em>, comes out Oct. 14.
Courtesy of the artist
Angaleena Presley's new album, American Middle Class, comes out Oct. 14.

The temptation when confronting a serious problem is to either cry it out or laugh it off. This is true in country music, as in life. Even the greatest songs about heavy subjects either diffuse the tension with jokes or go entirely maudlin, providing catharsis without true clarity. Angaleena Presley, though, tackles the hard stuff head on.

Take "Pain Pills," one of the beautifully frank and poignant portraits of small-town Southern life on the Pistol Annies member's remarkable solo debut, American Middle Class. In the first line, the local football hero is dead; by the last, the addiction that starts with a doctor's prescription has defeated half his neighbors, too. "Dry County Blues" tells a similar story of boredom and chemical indulgence. "Grocery Store" notices the spent potential in the face of a middle-aged clerk at the Winn-Dixie who "looks like a football coach who just lost his way." In the exquisitely tender ballad "Better Off Red," a college grad who realized her mother's dreams by leaving her rural home longs for her worker father: "He don't give a damn about these things in my head."

This is real life, unresolved, its pain and modest hope coming in increments. It's also familiar ground for country songwriters, but in Presley's patient, exacting hands, the clichés fall away. Born and raised in coal-mining Kentucky, Presley was determined to make American Middle Class as honest a view into the place that made her as music could accommodate. Presley recorded her father speaking of his life in the mines for the title track, and a drug-addicted neighbor reading Scripture for the heretic's gospel song "All I Ever Wanted." These flourishes of audio-realism blend seamlessly with Presley's own gently powerful voice, an instrument made for determining what's true.

Though they're never clichés, Presley's songs do exhibit plenty of humor, and they often play with classic country and Americana music forms. "Ain't No Man" strings together colorful metaphors in classic blues style to describe a woman whose choice to remain single confuses the status quo, while "Drunk" emulates Lucinda Williams in its hymn-like verses and dirt-kicking rock hook. But unlike songwriters who get stuffy when they feel they have to live up to tradition, Presley remains matter-of-fact. She has a right to live in these spaces.

Fastidiousness elevates Presley's work; it's not easy to write a fresh-feeling song about an alcoholic ex-husband or a damaged party girl, but she does it by making sure every bit of wordplay gets weighted with actual insight. With many of Nashville's best players behind her (Keith Gattis and Audley Freed play guitar, while Patty Loveless, Chris Stapleton, Sarah Siskind and Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers appear as backing vocalists), Presley goes for a sound that's both traditional and richly immediate. But it's that other quality, the commitment to absolutely no B.S., that makes her music exceptional. "You gotta work so hard to make it look easy," she sings in "Blessing And A Curse," her anthem about the American disease of chronic dissatisfaction. Presley confronts what's tough so easily that it feels completely right.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.