Campbell announced last June that he has Alzheimer's and that this album would therefore be his last. So it would feel haunted by intimations of mortality even if nearly every song and the titles of Roger Manning Jr.'s instrumental interludes (e.g., "The Rest Is Silence") didn't address the subject. But because Campbell, 75, is a Christian, the mood doesn't coagulate into gloom. Rather it culminates in hope. And because he's humble, he never lets on that he's headed toward a "better place" for any other reason than grace.
If these songs are any indication (and with one called "Made in America" they had better be), Toby Keith's Southern-Democrat politics are simply what would've passed for common national sentiments back when his grandmother, the bar-tending "Clancy" of the title track, was keeping her blue-collar patrons' beer glasses full. And although a Puritan might've viewed her tavern as a den of iniquity, Keith remembers it as a macrocosm of a democratic bonhomie unique to this great land. Give him that, and he's a happy man.
Their first album not to include an instantly irresistible single (unless their Christmas album counts) is also their first to suggest that they'll never turn into the country Fleetwood Mac. The problem is greater than that Charles Kelley is no Lindsey Buckingham and that Hillary Scott is no Christine McVie or Stevie Nicks. It's probably more a case of their being so content as actual human beings that their artistic personae can't help lacking the subtextual tension that transforms high-quality popular entertainment into something more like art.
If only for the energy, humor, and intelligent sympathy that went into it, this album deserves the acclaim it's received. But it's not energetic, funny, or intelligently sympathetic enough to justify its nearly one-hour length. Crossover potential notwithstanding, it's country enough to have benefitted from playing by the country rules, one of which is that if you can't bowl 'em over inside 30 minutes, maybe you deserve to be passed over by posterity for the music that Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette were making at your age.
If Miranda Lambert's latest album is too long for what's good about it to shine as brightly as it should, Hell on Heels (Sony Nashville) by her side project with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe-Pistol Annies-is, at 30 minutes, too short. The obvious solution would've been to extract the solo-Miranda songs most in keeping with her intimate and/or wild side ("Look at Miss Ohio," "Fastest Girl in Town," respectively) and to have used them to put some meat on the Pistol Annies' bones.
On the other hand, lean and mean is what the Annies are all about, the better to drive home the pointedness of their mini morality tales. The title cut serves fair gold-digger warning to middle-aged rich guys intent on adding a hot young wife to their trophies. And "Takin' Pills" and "Housewife's Prayer" elucidate more consequences brought on by the sexual revolution than Hugh Hefner could shake a paradigm shift at.