[Rating: 4 stars]
Country once sizzled with desire, drink, done-wrong and other sundry treasons—and that rub between “shouldn’t” and “can’t stop” packed the blunt force of a 2×4 with a nail in it. While vocal firebrand Miranda Lambert’s positioned as “the crazy ex-girlfriend,” who sings of guns and arson with unfaltering bravado, she’s more a fearless artist pushing the limits—be it a Clash-goes-Appalachian take on John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” or the wistful empowerment of the steel-soaked “Virginia Bluebell.” There is no safety net, only full-tilt emotions: the catty/funny rancor of “Only Prettier,” the haunted post-cheating “Sin for a Sin,” the habitual need of “Me & Your Cigarettes,” and the churning resolve “Maintain the Pain,” with its British guitar figure and churlish backbeat. Lambert means business—musically, emotionally, vocally. Descending into broken places, she owns the wreckage and gets on with it. Pain, yes, but also gratitude for where she’s been (“The House That Built Me”) and clear-eyed resolve about where she’s going (“Heart Like Mine”). Stereotypes be damned, Lambert—like the Dixie Chicks before—brings aggressiveness, shine and the thrill of being alive back to organic music. A must.