Ashley Monroe follows up her 2015 album “The Blade” with “Sparrow,” consisting of twelve songs full of heartache & but often with optimism thrown in. “The Blade” was Grammy nominated, but I’d be surprised if this genre encompassing set was – not because it’s not very good, it is, but it does not fit into any neat hole. It has a little country, easy listening, middle of the road, cinema soundtrack, disco & pop in it, but overall, these are songs of real quality. Produced by Dave Cobb (which album isn’t these days?), all the songs are co writes with the likes of Jon Randall, Angeelina Presley & Anderson East. Cobb’s influence can be heard in the musical arrangements (more of that later), which to me are the only minus on this album.
I’ve always thought that as her alter ego Hippie Annie, she had the best voice of the Pistol Annies, & it’s shown off here brilliantly. Crystal clear vocals, full of emotion & vulnerability, really bring out the lyrics in this fairly downbeat set of songs. If you like your music loud, with big guitar sounds, then this won’t be for you, as the majority of songs are relaxed fairly MOR numbers with terrific hooks & tunes.
Kicking off with “Orphan”, this is all strings/orchestral arrangements backing a low key attractive song. Ashley asks “How do I make it alone?”, which really sets the tone lyrically for this album. “Hard On A Heart” continues with an up beat tempo, with another string solo. “Hands On You” is the first single from the album & is essentially Ashley getting a bit horny with her lover. It has very sexy lyrics backed by the boldest guitar on this album, then in comes another orchestral solo.
The first stand out track is “Mother’s Daughter”, a tribute to her own Mother & is a tale of the mortality we all face. Showing all faces of a relationship, lyrically this is a strong song – “Staying forever is the biggest lie she‘ll ever believe” & “Staying forever is a promise that nobody could keep” are typical of the meaning. Nice backing too.
“Rita” continues the orchestral backing theme, & I have to say that by now I was hoping for a little more traditional instrumentation, just to have a little variety. This is a song about wanting to be someone else, & again shows off her vocal style brilliantly.
“Wild Love” is in my opinion, the weakest song here. Sounding like it could be a pseudo – disco number by Tavares (remember them from the 70’s?), it’s just too bland for my taste, with omnipresent strings coating the lyrics. Not her best by a long chalk.
My favourite track is “This Heaven”, a delicate ode to what her Heaven is now, & it’s not what is up there. As she sings “This Heaven that I’m holding is holding me tight”. A lovely vocal, great tune & intelligent lyrics make this a stunning song.
I thought I was listening to the Moody Blues again when “I’m Trying To” opens with a burst of mellotron. This makes a nice change from the orchestral arrangement which has gone on before, & again, the song is highlighted by Ashley’s crystal clear vocals. Strangely after just having given birth to a son, “She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me)” is an ode to a daughter & has an upbeat retro sound.
“Paying Attention” must be the title of the next James Bond movie, as this track would be absolutely perfect for the title song. It has “soundtrack” written all over it, from the sweeping strings led tune to the filmic lyrics. Pretty cool though!
Having paid tribute to her mother earlier, Ashley sends a love letter to her father, who died when she was young on “Daddy I Told You”, which has a real sense of love coming through in the heartfelt lyrics. The final dollop of strings comes in the closer “Keys To The Kingdom”, which despite the amount of heartbreak previously seen, is upbeat in tone with optimistic lyrics.
In the press release accompanying this album for review, Ashley says “Country music is a wide genre, & that’s OK. I don’t even know what genre this record is, but I know it’s me”.That says it all – impossible as it is to pigeon hole “Sparrow”, it is nevertheless an excellent collection of songs, although there was just too much orchestra in the arrangements for me. Would I buy this? Yes I certainly would.