‘Hell on Heels,’ ‘Concrete’ capture heart of country

Turn on your radio and you’ll hear the men of country music having a blast. They’re peeling down dirt roads in their pickups, sniffing out swimming holes and honky-tonks where the girls are hot, the beers are frosty, the parties are raging. Life is peachy in America’s imaginary backwoods where the huntin’ and fishin’ are good and summertime is half truck commercial, half beer commercial.

Meanwhile, in reality, the women of country music have been pacing their kitchen floors, thinking about burning the house down.

“Can’t see a way out of the mess I’m in and the bills keep getting higher,” sings Angaleena Presley during the opening verse of “Housewife’s Prayer,” a ballad about picket fences gone rotten. “All I need is a match and a gallon of gas.”

But gas costs $3.57 a gallon. Instead, she washes her meds down with a Budweiser and prays that her busted marriage doesn’t send her “off the deep end.”

It’s the lowest low from “Hell on Heels,” the excellent downer of a debut from the Pistol Annies, a trio formed two years back when country superstar Miranda Lambert and her songwriting buddy Ashley Monroe made a giddy midnight phone call to Presley to ask if she wanted to start a band. Lambert’s career was about to turn white-hot with the release of her third chart-topping album “Revolution,” while Presley and Monroe had each earned their stripes penning songs on Music Row.

Now, sharing all the vocal and songwriting duties, the trio bring their A-game with arrangements that skew traditional and lyrics that snarl. But they don’t come out blasting. The album-opening title track could have be been a boastful, rip-roaring tune, but the Annies harmonize in a slow burn as they promise to break “a million hearts” at their own pace.

The tempo picks up later with “The Hunter’s Wife,” a much-needed retort to all the fishing tales that have come breezing out of Nashville of late. Over a click-clacking beat, Presley curses a no-good hubby who spends “more time in them woods than he spends in this house.”

With “Trailer for Rent,” Lambert’s patience boils over. “It’s been 10 years, 10,000 beers,” she twangs. “He’s still sitting right there on the couch. . . .’Bout time somebody got the hell out.”

Clocking in at a lean 30-minutes, “Hell on Heels” is a laugh-to-keep-from-crying-your-blue-eyes-bloodshot kind of album. And after the boys of summer have gone, it might stand as the best country release of 2011.

Trailing not far behind is “Concrete,” the superb sophomore effort from Texas singer Sunny Sweeney. It’s a pithy, 10-track affair, each song a heartbruiser sung by a scorned woman wearing a brave face.

Infidelity is at the heart of Sweeney’s sadness, as she spends the album trying to bend various love triangles back into straight lines — or vice versa. She goes on a roadhouse bender to get even with a low-down lover (“Drink Myself Single”), she rethinks her revenge fantasies while trucking down the highroad (“Mean As You”), and she begs her lover’s wife to cut him loose (“Amy”).

(Remember Dolly Parton’s “Jolene?” This time, Sunny is “Jolene,” “Amy” is Dolly and, somehow, we end up rooting for Sunny.)

It’s all beautiful, bittersweet stuff. But nothing trumps “From a Table Away,” a song about that crushing moment when you discover your lover has been cheating on you. With his wife. While you stalk them in a dark restaurant.

“I heard you tell her you still love her,” Sweeney sings during the song’s golden chorus. “So it doesn’t matter what you say/I saw it all from a table away.”

And while both of these albums marinate in heartbreak — or in the case of the Annies, heartbreak, debt and pharmaceuticals — both capture the despair of a tough American summer and the perseverance it takes to make it through.

The men might own the country airwaves right now, but you won’t find this kind of truth in their fish tales.

Sunny Sweeney is scheduled to perform at Jiffy Lube Live on Sept. 24.

Recommended tracks:

The Pistol Annies: “Housewife’s Prayer,” “Trailer for Rent,” “Hell on Heels.” Sunny Sweeney: “From a Table Away,” “Mean As You,” “Drink Myself Single”

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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