Miranda Lambert and the relativism of country music

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Miranda Lambert
  • Courtesy of RCA records
  • Miranda Lambert
As the years have passed I've come to realize that music critics often use a kind of sliding scale, where the benchmarks fall in different places according to what genre they're discussing and where a particular artist might fit on the commercial continuum within it. As I see it, a lot of writing about mainstream country music goes easy on hammy production, by-the-numbers arrangements, and treacly lyrics. And because no other popular genre cleaves so strongly to its own conventions, bullshit such as country-rap lug Big Smo gets celebrated for its formal invention. Miranda Lambert is now one of country's biggest stars, and her boat rocking comes mostly in the form of sass and independence in the words she sings. There are moments on her latest album, Platinum (RCA), where it's hard not to gag on the sentiment: the string-swaddled "Smokin' and Drinkin'," which includes vocal harmonies by Little Big Town and wan electric-piano chords, is a saccharine dud about weekend warriors getting nostalgic for their younger days.

For many years a country album needed only ten songs, but lately artists seem to have decided to give their fans more for their buck—Platinum has 16 tracks, and quite a few of them feel perfunctory at best. "Somethin' Bad" is a bad-girl atrocity, a duet with Carrie Underwood that channels Queen's "We Will Rock You" and dares to talk about "the real-life Thelma and Louise." "Automatic" yearns for a previrtual world, singling out the joys of paper maps and manual transmissions, but its slick production feels like it was stamped on an assembly line. Lambert fares better on the honky-tonk stroll "Old Shit," where the music doesn't contradict her when she sings about her affection for vinyl, used power tools, and Red Man tobacco. I'm happy to see Lambert include a song steeped in western swing: on "All That's Left," a Dixie and Tom T. Hall number, she gives a good-for-nothing lover his walking papers (you can listen below). On "Gravity Is a B**ch" she comes to terms with the aging process—in contrast to the title track, where she sings, "When your roots grow out and things go south / Hey, go back to the salon."

We're dealing in lowest common denominators here, but criticizing this sort of thing will get you called a snob. Some of the dogs aside, I enjoy Platinum as much or more as any record Lambert has made, but she'll probably never be fit to take out the trash for someone like Loretta Lynn. She headlines the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on Friday night.

Today's playlist:

Harouna Goge, Niger: Dendi Country (Ocora)
Jim Hall, ...Where Would I Be? (OJC/Milestone)
Delfonics, The Professionals (Kent)
Herbert Henck, Piano Music: Nancarrow/Antheil (ECM)
Jim Black AlasNoAxis, Dogs of Great Indifference (Winter & Winter)

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