It’s hard not to root for Ashley Monroe. Two years after agonizingly shoving her debut Satisfied
(2009) into a belated release on Columbia Records, with whom she had parted ways in 2007, the determined country singer finally caught a break working with the hugely popular Miranda Lambert and fellow minor artist Angeleena Presley as Pistol Annies. That group’s Hell on Heels
(2011) was one of the best albums of its year, both deeply thoughtful and relentlessly catchy. It was also a showcase for Monroe’s previously unexposed skills as a singer and a songwriter; she co-wrote seven of the album’s ten songs and sang lead on the wonderful ballad “Beige”. The album didn’t propel her to a stardom equal to Lambert’s--still the most prominent presence on that album--but seemed a sign of great things to come.
Now we have Like a Rose
, Monroe’s first album since her botched debut, and the prophecy seems...well, kind of
fulfilled, but in unexpectedly disappointing ways. Monroe is still a talented singer, convincingly emulating many of her peers’s vocal slides and affectations if not their lusty vigor. Her songwriting chops are intact as well; each song feels whittled away until it remains as lean and melodic as possible. She even retains Hell on Heels
’s refreshing brevity: there are only nine songs here, each of them hovering around the three-minute mark.
Yet there’s a decidedly meager quality to the light guitar scrapes and melodies that compose the backbone of Like a Rose
, and Monroe’s compliance in hitting all the aesthetic marks expected of her soon becomes the album’s biggest flaw. Opener “Like a Rose” features some strikingly candid lyrics by Monroe (“I was only 13 when Daddy died / Momma started drinkin’ and my brother just quit tryin’”) but not much else, almost aggravating in its wispy simplicity. That delicacy becomes a motif throughout the album’s surprisingly quiet duration (only “Weed Instead of Roses” and “Monroe Suede” rise above the hush), and after a while her insistence on a low-key atmosphere starts to seem like a defense mechanism--as if unexceptional songwriting can be sublimated simply by a low volume.
Although there exist exceptions, like the gorgeous “Used” (in which Monroe drops this corker: “Used, like a house where a family lived until they died and there’s a soul in every room”), the record as a whole slithers into a sort of unsatisfying middle ground. Her skills are present exactly where we want them, but the record falls short for that exact same reason. This is Monroe’s moment; is it too much to ask that she extend her reach from where it’s always been?