Being mediocre was never an option for Amanda Shires, drafted at 15 into the ranks of western swing legends the Texas Playboys – playing fiddle no less, just like late bandleader Bob Wills. When she shifted from sidewoman to singer-songwriter, she kept aiming high. One of her best tunes has a narrative involving Leonard Cohen. She signed on for, and recently finished, a poetry MFA at Sewanee. And she workshops her songs with Jason Isbell, who she’s also married to.
For her seventh LP, the Lubbock native re-groups with Southern roots guru Dave Cobb for her first LP as a mom. If anyone expected a drift into sentimentality, her writing’s just gotten bolder, with arrangements that stretch the definition of “Americana” to the point of meaninglessness (Shires won the “Best Emerging Artist” trophy at last years Americana Music Awards). “Parking Lot Pirouette” opens the set like an aerial shot, zooming in on a romantic moment outside a bar, framing it in cosmic terms against a 3/4 waltz pulse, with shivering organ clouds and trippy electric guitar from Isbell. It’s more Pink Floyd than Floyd Tillman.
The lyrics examine love’s magnetic poles in language elevated and not. “Leave it Alone” rhymes “the gold-blue sky of morning” with “bees inside us swarming,” carried by processed vocals and chiming ‘80s college rock guitar. Many songs channel the urge to flee, an understandable sentiment coming from an ambitious young mother. “Charms” opens with Shires voice and a lonely ukulele, a meditation on daughters, abandonment, filial obligations, and moving forward, punctuated by woozy synth squeals. “Break Out The Champagne” is a yeasty breakup song involving a wild girl realizing she’s a rock’n’roller while her dude is, um, “golf.” Shires’ characters are often hardluck cases pushing on with a minimum of look-back. “Eve’s Daughter,” another breakup song, is more bruised, with Isbell’s guitar amped up to Drive By Truckers level; it’s the story of a gal, working at a gas station, who hitches herself to 23-year-old military dude to escape, then cuts bait when things get ugly, eyes on the horizon.
If these folks are heroes, it’s in a Lennon-ish sense: working-class-heroic survivors. The album ends with a gut-punch. “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” is punctured by a searing, Neil Young-conjuring Isbell solo, and chronicles a brutal suicide in a town called Nome. Alaska? Texas? Norway? Could conceivably be any of ‘em. The dead man’s buddy, who cluelessly loaned him the car he took his last drive in, is ultimately left wondering why. The silence following the song’s final note provides the only answer.