As with Kacey Musgraves, whose high-end pop album recently was a clear-eyed attempt at transcending the narrow musical bigotry (for which read, stupid conservatism and misogyny) of American country radio, Ashley Monroe has moved on with a view to moving past.
Sparrow is in the main a mid-tempo-to-subdued set where her humour has been sidelined, dancing involving any more than hugging a body close and swaying is frowned on, and where extraneous/obligatory “country” sounds are pretty much avoided. It’s also where modernity is mostly there in the freshness of the sonic atmosphere rather than tricked-up rhythms or studio effects, and yet overt nods to classic country periods are more in the general than specific.
That is, strings appear but not with countrypolitan excess, hearts break but there’s not much call for either god or the bottle (or pill case), and the echoes of one D. Parton are overt in the tremble in Monroe’s voice but more subtly in things like the album’s title. (Yes, you can take it as a given that country bros and babes aren’t shopping at this store.)
None of these are of themselves good or bad moves by the way. If you’re not going the full alternative or traditional routes that guarantee you critical favour but radio silence, there are few choices but to either go the full Urban, as it were, or look to pull in a market which wouldn’t normally think of itself as country music-listening.
And in any case, Monroe has long signalled her natural leaning to the ballad, a truth comprehensively shown here in the elegant resignation of Keys To The Kingdom, the contained hurt of I’m Trying To, and the way Rita subtly evokes the Bee Gees’ Words while never pushing.
That doesn’t mean straight out balladry though. The measured dose of rhythm and blues in Wild Love only reveals itself on third or fourth listen, the southern soul underneath Mother’s Daughter (the most Dolly vocal here incidentally) bubbles away within the laidback ‘70s pop, but that influence is up front and highly appealing in Hands On You, which feels adult and even a touch provocative.
The pity for me with Hands On You is that it suggests more interesting directions for this songwriter, certainly more interesting than the by-the-numbers feel of Daddy I Told You – which is exactly as you might expect from that title. Songs with a bit of physicality in them, with maybe a touch more wry observation and humour, seem a very good fit. I know that’s the album I would play more frequently than this.
However, as with the classy sheen of Musgraves’s Golden Hour, which left me underwhelmed if impressed, this stylish return from Monroe succeeds on its own terms, rather than mine or yours.