No one saw the Pistol Annies coming. Led by Nashville troublemaker Miranda Lambert, whose solo career was already gangbusters, the sorta-supergroup sounded like the kind of girls who would steal Carrie Underwood's lunch money.
The Annies were pretty, but they sure weren't princesses. Their 2011 surprise, under-the-radar debut Hell on Heels was a lo-fi blast, a sexy, sepia-toned salute to the sass of patron sinner Annie Oakley. Drink, smoke, shoot, shatter some poor boy's heart — repeat.
But much like, say, the Traveling Wilburys' follow-up record, the new Annie Up is missing something, and maybe it's the refreshing novelty and recklessness of the first LP. This one feels too careful, maybe too planned, and gone is the bounty of irresponsible gems like Hell on Heels' stalking title cut and the brilliantly besotted Takin' Pills, which sounded like Bob Dylan if his name had been Roberta ("She's got a Tennessee mountain point of view / If you're gonna have one might as well have two").
No doubt these are extremely talented women. Lambert (who goes by "Lone Star Annie") and cohorts Ashley Monroe ("Hippie Annie") and Angaleena Presley ("Holler Annie") have distinctive, retro-fitted voices that twang, yelp and seduce. Monroe just released the critically gushed-upon album Like a Rose, and Presley might be the best pure singer of them all.
And the album opens with one heck of a promise: the slow harmonizing heat of I Feel a Sin Comin' ("Please Jesus don't hold me back"). Next up is the rockabilly swing of Hush Hush, a bawdy family drama written by all three of them and loaded with vodka, pot, bad religion — all the Annies' trademarks ("Hide your tattoo / Put on your Sunday best / Pretend you're not a mess").
There are a couple of other keepers; the acidic Unhappily Married ("Must be mistaking me with the maid we don't have") is a doozy. But too often the songs fail to spark. Being Pretty Ain't Pretty is played as a sad feminist dirge — it's basically a gripe about lipstick played straight — and might have worked better as a wild-haired rocker.
The album's second half is almost entirely filler: the milquetoast Don't Talk About Him, Tina and Girls Like Us, the weeper Trading One Heartbreak for Another. There's no bite, no edge. It's not bad; it's just not captivating, which you would think would be impossible at a party thrown by Miranda Lambert. Even worse, on closer I Hope You're the End of My Story, the Pistol Annies sound like someone you'd want to bring home to mama. And really, where's the fun in that?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.