Ashley Monroe gains more acclaim for other projects than she does for her own solo efforts. Monroe is one third of side group Pistol Annies. She sang with Blake Shelton on his hit "Lonely Tonight." She received praise for her first proper solo album (her ill-fated Satisfied" was released three years after its completion by her former label, Sony), "Like a Rose," in 2013, although that was a release that stood on the strength of the songs because three singles produced zero hits. Can "The Blade" turn the trick?
Whatever happens on the commercial front won't be because Monroe did not release a worthy follow-up. Once again, Vince Gill produced with Justin Niebank. Gill's stamp remains firm as you could almost imagine him singing these songs.
Monroe expands her musical palette this time with a bit less twang and traditional sounding country instrumentation - at least for a while. On the opening "On To Something Good," she stretches into soulful territory while proclaiming "I'll ride this train until it runs out of track."
The ballad "Has Anybody Ever Told You," an older song, puts Monroe back in the traditional framework, although she employs a string section and a weepy pedal steel do even more emotional damage.
One of the best songs on the 13-song set is "If the Devil Don't Want Me," penned with Chris Stapleton and Jessi Alexander. This is 3:40 of vintage Monroe with twangy vocals (Lee Ann Womack could just as well sing this and, in fact, Monroe echoes her style), pedal steel, piano, backing vocals and, oh yeah, lines like "If the devil don't want me/where the hell do I go?" (In contrast, she says requires God's help to end a relationship on "Bombshell" and get out of the South on "Dixie")
Monroe sings with controlled beauty, and she also knows a thing or two about using it as a weapon. On "I'll Bring Them Home to You," she employs three slightly varied methods of singing "I'll bring them home" at the end of the track. Smart move. She lets loose a lot more on "Winning Streak" with its '50s styled vocals, bringing Wanda Jackson to mind.
Monroe ends "The Blade," which gains more and more steam as it goes along, with "I'm Good At Leavin'," penned with fellow Annies member Miranda Lambert and Alexander. The emphasis is on Monroe's singing where she's calling the shots and telling the guy exactly what's going to happen - she's doing it her way.
Monroe is part of the very small, new breed of "wo country" (women in country), like Kacey Musgraves, who operate sufficiently outside au courant, giving them street cred, while not being too far out to render them commercially obsolete. Standing on her own, "The Blade" cuts deep.