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Angaleena Presley Takes Aim At Nashville On 'Wrangled'


This is FRESH AIR. Angaleena Presley first came to widespread attention as one third of the vocal group the Pistol Annies, along with Ashley Monroe and the country star Miranda Lambert. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Presley's new album, "Wrangled," has a lot of criticism, overt and implied, about the current state of country music, even as it makes the musical case that Presley deserves to be a star in the industry she's criticizing.


ANGALEENA PRESLEY: (Singing) The grass looks greener. The money does too. It sure looks easier for a chosen few. Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me. And I've spent my whole damn life trying to fit back in. I don't want to be an outlaw.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I don't want to be an outlaw, Angaleena Presley sings on her new album, continuing her thought with - I want to be a straight-shooting, highfalutin rider on the hit parade. Yes, Presley wants to be an insider, a star. She wants money, fame and power. On the album cover, she's making an angry face while posing with a gag over her mouth, ropes lashed around her body. She's been hogtied, wrangled, like a wild horse. This album is her way of breaking loose.


PRESLEY: (Singing) If I had a dollar for every time he tracked his dirty feet cross my clean kitchen floor, I'd be like those girls in the magazines. I wouldn't be under his thumb no more. Bible says a woman ought to know her place. Mine's out here in the middle of all of this wide open space. Between all of this roping and riding, I might as well be hogtied and strangled. I'm tired of waking up feeling like I've been wrangled.

TUCKER: That's the title tune of "Wrangled." Elsewhere, Presley sings a murder ballad about a woman who marries a preacher who turns out to be abusive. The song has the audacity to compare the blood of Christ to the blood of the wife's pious dead husband after she shoots him.

Now listen to the way Presley gives us another song, "Dreams Don't Come True." It starts off as though Presley is sitting around in a recording studio a little bit weary, maybe improvising a lyric that is then picked up by the other musicians around her and turned into a gorgeously lush composition. It's like a dream in an old movie of how music is created, all of this to showcase a deeply pessimistic vision.


PRESLEY: (Singing) Thought there'd be a man in a suit and a 10 gallon hat. He'd give me a deal and a red Cadillac. And I'd make hit records and get hooked on drugs. But I wound up pregnant and strung out on Dreams don't come true. They'll make a mess out of you. They'll hang around...

TUCKER: That song is operating on a number of levels. On one, it's the honky-tonk lament of a woman sitting at a bar wallowing in the bad turns her life has taken. On another level, it's what Presley is talking about in interviews to promote this album, the way the country music industry has little use these days for female voices making strong statements. Country radio is filled with men talking about how much they like parties, girls and country music. For them, country music is a concept, a genre to exploit. For Presley, it's a cause and, therefore, the cause of heartache.


PRESLEY: (Singing) Cheer up, little darling. Don't be so sad. There's a time and a place for the blues you have had. Hold what you've got, babe. Never give in. It feels like a tight spot, but it's just a loose end.

TUCKER: That's "Cheer Up Little Darling," a song Presley co-wrote with the late Guy Clark. I listen to a lot of country music, and I could have sworn I'd heard another song here called "Groundswell" before. "Groundswell" sounds like such an obvious big hit record, I literally did a Google search to find out who had already covered Presley's song. Who could it be - Little Big Town? Chris Stapleton? I was wrong. I must have heard this song in a dream.

So this is where you, too, can discover "Groundswell" with its beautiful, slow build to the surging chorus of the title phrase.


PRESLEY: (Singing) Hotel room, 30 days. Still not breaking even, but I'm getting paid. One more link in the chain makes it last a little longer, and it kills the pain. It's a rainy night in Georgia. And I'm praying that the T-shirts and the records will sell. One more song, one more show, one more penny in the well, groundswell.

TUCKER: From its self-portrait-in-bondage album cover to the liner notes in which the most polite thing she calls Nashville is a meat grinder where only the callous and fearless survive, "Wrangled" is framed as a melodramatically heroic album. But the art contained within that frame is much more subtle, nuanced and clever, which doesn't make it any less pointed and passionate.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Angaleena Presley's new album "Wrangled."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


HASAN MINHAJ: My name is Hasan Minhaj or, as I will be known a few weeks, number 830287.

GROSS: That's "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj a few weeks ago at the White House Correspondents' Dinner doing stand-up about being a Muslim-American and the son of immigrants in the Trump era. We'll talk about his new Netflix comedy special in which he has a lot to say about being a Muslim-American and the son of immigrants from India. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.