TERRY GROSS, host:
Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of country singer Miranda Lambert's third album, "Revolution." The Texas-born 25-year-old has had a string of hits and music industry awards since the release of her 2005 debut album, "Kerosene." For all this mainstream acceptance, however, rock critic Ken Tucker says one of Lambert's best qualities is her persistence in writing complex songs and choosing to cover compositions by lesser-known but worthy artists.
(Soundbite of song, "Only Prettier)
Ms. MIRANDA LAMBERT (Singer): (Singing) Well, I've been saved by the grace of Southern charm, I got a mouth like a sailor and yours is more like a Hallmark card> If you wanna pick a fight, well I'm gonna have to say good night, I don't have to be hateful, I can just say bless your heart, and even though I don't belong with your high-life friends.
KEN TUCKER: Miranda Lambert has been known to get away with some nicely outrageous boasting in the past — lighting up a wayward lover with kerosene, invoking her prowess with a gun as a warning against infidelity on her 2007 single "Gunpowder & Lead," and letting you draw your own conclusions about her previous album title, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Her new album is called "Revolution," but who cares if it doesn't represent one?
I'm more pleased that in a new song she's written, called "Dead Flowers," Lambert takes a wilted image and spruces it up as a symbol of not merely a dying relationship. As she does on her best songs, she sketches the details a bit more vividly than that. To her narrator, the flowers remind her of the day her man brought them home to her, thinking this was enough to make her happy. Instead, they now just remind her of how clueless he is about her moods and her needs.
(Soundbite of song, "Dead Flower")
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) I feel like the flowers in this vase. He just brought them home one day. Ain't they beautiful, he said. They been here in the kitchen and the water's turning gray. They're sitting in the vase but now they're dead. Dead flowers.
TUCKER: It's probably safe to say Lambert didn't write "Dead Flowers" with country star Blake Shelton in mind. The two have been an item for a while now and collaborated on a few songs here, most notably on "Love Song," whose lyric is the exact opposite of "Dead Flowers." It's all about how the narrator and her love read each other with emotional telepathy. It's an idealized romance saved from treacle by a fine, firm folk melody and a surging vocal by Lambert.
(Soundbite of song, "Dead Flower")
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) I was standing there crying in the kitchen. It's been one of those mornings that's gonna last all day. And he comes in, wraps his arms around me. And I don't even have to say a thing. That's what makes it love. That's what makes it a love song. He comes in...
TUCKER: Lambert and Shelton, in their late 20s and early 30s, respectively, may be utterly contemporary country stars. Lambert came to prominence on "Nashville Star," for heaven's sake, the country TV equivalent of "American Idol." But she displays more knowledge of the history of her genre than the average Idol contestant does of pop or R&B. On "Me and Your Cigarettes," for example, she uses the classic country device of equating herself with a jarring, jocular image — cigarettes, nicotine addiction — and extends the metaphor over four fine verses and a catchy chorus.
(Soundbite of song, "Me and Your Cigarettes")
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) Gives you something you can do with your hands. Makes you look cool and feel like a man. In the morning you'll probably regret me. Me and your cigarettes. Started young, it's too late to quit. Most call it a bad, bad habit. Your mama told you, you could end up dead with me. Me and your cigarettes.
TUCKER: With her dusty drawl and slurry phrasing, Lambert is also terrific at choosing cover songs. She and her producers take a 1978 song by John Prine — a great singer-songwriter who could use the royalties that accrue from being included on a Miranda Lambert album — and turn his bit of excellent whimsy, "That's the Way That The World Goes Round," into a country-rock rave-up.
(Soundbite of song, "That's the Way That The World Goes Round")
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) Well, I was sitting in the tub just a counting my toes, when the radiator broke and the water froze, got stuck in the ice without any clothes, naked as the eyes of a clown. I was crying ice cubes hoping that I'd croak when the sun came through the window and the ice all broke. I said, son of a gun, man, that's just a joke. And that's the way that the world goes 'round. That's the way that the world goes 'round. One minute you're up and the next you're down. Got a half an inch of water and you think you're gonna drown. That's the way that the world goes 'round.
TUCKER: If some of the slower, showier songs on "Revolution" suggest a hint of self-absorption, the majority of the good ones suggest something much better: a country star who likes to tweak Nashville's notions of mannerliness. And I don't even have time to talk about the nerviness of the song about drinking wine with Jesus as though the son of God was just an extra-fine good ol' boy.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Miranda Lambert's album "Revolution." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
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