Angaleena Presley wants to be ‘Elvis but with lipstick and boobs’, and not just because of the shared surname. Her great desire’s to be a ‘straight-shootin’, highfalutin’ rider on the hit brigade’ much like the King in his prime. But so far commercial success hasn’t been forthcoming, and unlike, say, Kurt Cobain, this outlier status on the charts doesn’t please her. In fact she feels like she’s been Wrangled.
‘I don’t know that anyone wakes up and sets out to be an underdog – you just kind of are,’ she explained to Rolling Stone in an interview. Here in Britain we love a good underdog, which might explain why I’m so moved by this album – I know that Angaleena deserves the mainstream acceptance she craves, and so I’m deeply affected by ‘Groundswell’ for instance, which has her performing in Georgia one rainy night and praying that the t-shirts and records will sell. It’s a keen reminder of just how hard it is to make a living from music these days, at least when you’re not attaining U2 or Ed Sheeran levels of sales. Which must be frustrating when you’re far more gifted than either of them.
And she is! That voice is supple; it bends around the ballads without ever descending into mawkishness, and it unloads bucketloads of humour and quiet sass onto the up-tempo moments. As track after track hits home, the consistency displayed on her (highly recommended) debut American Middle Class is duplicated, showing it not to be a fluke. Her grasp of melody and country music’s extremely satisfying, radically simple mixture of ‘three chords and the truth’ – which goes straight under the inflated heads of the snobs over at Pitchfork, who barely ever review country albums – places her at or near the top of a strong pack of female artists working in Nashville today (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Sunny Sweeney, Lori McKenna, Margo Price… the list of sharp, mega-talented gals goes on, all of them putting the chart-busting bros to shame).
She’s also strong on lyrics, another reason to cherish this album. Presley and her team of co-writers come up with surprise after surprise. On the title track she acknowledges that the ‘Bible says a woman oughta know her place’, before turning that implied sexism on its head by revealing that ‘mine’s out here in the middle of all of this wide open space’. Reminds me of the breaking free onto the US plains of Thelma & Louise, and it has the same feminist connotations. Meanwhile on the chorus of the comic highlight ‘Bless My Heart’ she tells a particularly irksome Southern belle ‘you’re a beauty mark on the human race’, before following it up with ‘and if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face.’ And in the most shocking twist of all, the promise that ‘Only Blood’ can set you free, which at first means the bloodline of family, suddenly takes on a darker meaning as a wife greets the homecoming of her piece of shit of a husband with a pistol. You never know when Presley will pull the rug out from underneath someone, stamping on their head and your expectations.
As you can probably tell from these examples, Angaleena might be shackled and wrangled by various obnoxious characters, particularly men, and she might be disappointed by her relative lack of success, but she’s not defeated. Never. The arc of the album goes from a pained admission that ‘Dreams Don’t Come True’ to an encouragement later on from Guy Clark to ‘Cheer Up Little Darling’ (in the last writing credit of his life), to a final insistence that you can never keep a ‘Good Girl Down’, no matter what bullshit they might face together as a gender. And as the album moves towards its happy ending of sorts, it picks up momentum: the final two tracks rock the hardest of the bunch, and indeed harder than any other sequence of music I’ve heard so far this year. Yeehaw!
Believe me, she’s a good girl down to the bone. Yelawolf might bemoan all the posers on the country chart and say ‘thank God for Sturgill Simpson’, but really that should be ‘thank God for Angaleena Presley’.