In 2015, we are observing a phenomenon that could be aptly termed the “Country Elite”. Some have called it “Bra Country” to playfully alter the established pejorative “Bro Country”, creating a new title mostly owed to the fact that women are at the forefront. In the mainstream, it’s even sometimes portrayed with the more vague “Americana”. Regardless of its title, the genre includes a small (but growing) number of current songwriters, from various backgrounds and experiencing various levels of commercial success, all of whom are blowing critics away
and artistically, leaving their Billboard chart-topping fellows in the dust. If Ashley Monroe hadn’t already cemented herself—as not just a contender but as royalty—with the botched-release début Satisfied or her bewitching solo introduction Like A Rose, then The Blade is all she needed.
Almost half of this set will be known to fans before its issue due to a cluttered schedule of single releases and the first official recording of one song that Monroe has been playing live for years. This fact matters little; fans of hers won’t have the same short attention spans as younger listeners of commercial Country. It’s less about commenting on society, and more a timeless set of songs about love, and it’s a given that her vocal performance is flawless. Although she doesn’t quite have pipes that belt country ballads a la Carrie Underwood, she has a timbre that howls heartbreak, even in major keys. There’s no keeping her dusty soul out of her songs.
The retro vibes of Like A Rose are less stark this time around. Instead, we’re presented with something dead centre between her commercial début
and her subtly wonderful duet with Blake Shelton, ‘Lonely Tonight’. Monroe here is poised much closer to a commercial breakthrough than ever before, but it can’t be said if she’s close enough just yet – songs like the excellent ‘Winning Streak’, at once familiar and stimulating, would fit perfectly as an Elvis Presley ditty.
Producers Vince Gill and Justin Niebank return, and there’s a fantastic plethora of co-writers here including Luke Laird, Miranda Lambert and also Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman (Striking Matches). It furthermore embraces the first song recorded by Monroe on which she does not have a writing credit; while the emotion she claims touches her and is her on the title track may be lost on some of us, it’s by no means bad.
It just fails to outshine the likes of ‘You Got Me’ from her first major release. The song that comes closer to this heavy feat must be ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’, featured in studio form for the first time, poetic, delicate and heartfelt.
Some tracks, like ‘The Weight of the Load’, are just a cut above regular radio fare, but still hit closer to the middle of the road, even though each provides an opportunity for her potent pipes to soar. With a voice this sweet, she could sing the phonebook and we’d still lap it up, especially when tied with a winning melody, such as the lullaby-esque ‘From Time To Time’. It’s simply logical that, with four more songs than her 9-track début, there’s also more room for error.
Although not as pointedly refreshing as her retrograde début, the lyrics and melodies hold up, as does her voice. Monroe has successfully commercialised herself, without losing a single shot of her Hippie-Annie charm. Although Like A Rose was always accessible, The Blade is insuppressibly more so, without sacrificing the backbone of all good Country music: ruminating lyrical content. To couple this with platinum sales status would be justice.