Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
On her 2014 debut American Middle Class, Angaleena Presley emerged from her behind-the-scenes role as a Music Row songwriter and Miranda Lambert collaborator as one of the freshest, most vital voices in independent country. Three years later, Presley further expands upon the righteous premise of her debut album, which shone light on an American heartland hooked on pills and overwhelmed by credit card debt. The result, Wrangled, is a rootsy collection of interpersonal dramas and vivid field reports from Presley’s American underclass.
Presley remains interested in fictionalizing her own unlikely road to becoming an artist on songs like “Outlaw,” which deftly deflates renegade-country mythology and the veiled-autobiographical “Dreams Don’t Come True,” which finds Presley envisioning an alternate reality of pop mega stardom.
But for the most part on Wrangled, Presley assumes the role of sharp-eyed observer. In rich character sketches, Presley chronicles the constraining gender roles of adolescence (“High School”) and the hypocrisy of pious small town pleasantries (“Bless My Heart”). But her finest achievement to date might be “Only Blood,” a weaving, multi-character socio-political drama told in under five minutes.
Presley once again relies heavily on blue-eyed soul arrangements to anchor her genre-spanning country, which also takes cues from blues, roadhouse honky-tonk, Phil Spector pop, and waltz-time folk. Spiritually, the album draws inspiration from two of last year’s fallen titans: Merle Haggard, whom she answers in song on “Mama I Tried” and Guy Clark, whose voice can be heard reciting the lyrics to “Cheer Up Little Darlin,” his moving, final co-write.
Clark would have been proud: Presley’s latest album is a masterclass in songwriting that shows the singer’s limitless potential. As she puts it herself on the Dixie-Chicks nodding title track: “Bible says/ a woman oughta/ know her place/ Mine’s out here/ in the middle of/ all of this/ wide open space.”