Can we just induct Miranda Lambert into the Country Music Hall of Fame right now?
Well, no, we can’t, because there are rules about these things, and Lambert will be a firecracker of 60 or 70 or so by the time she’s in. But her new album, “Four the Record,” is the kind of collection that makes you wish we could just skip those pesky intervening decades of eligibility requirements and acknowledge her importance to the artform on the spot.
And this isn’t even her first great album this year. Less than three months ago, Lambert joined up with two lesser-known femmes fatale under the name of the Pistol Annies to release a collaborative side project, “Hell on Heels” … which, up until this week, was 2011’s best country record. Now, like an actor with two strong projects going up against herself for an Oscar, Lambert is providing her own toughest competition for that honorific.
Behind that slip of a dress seen in the sexy cover art, Lambert is the full package. Of course, to a lot of country fans, she’s stuck with the stereotype of the vengeful, rocking, take-no-prisoners Texas firebrand – but lest we forget, that’s a stereotype largely of her own making, though she had a little help on that front from Natalie Maines before her.
But she also brings an alt-country singer/songwriter sensibility to a genre that doesn’t always favors poetic idiosyncracies – even when she’s not the songwriter in question, but adapting tunes from writers as great as Gillian Welch, whose ambiguous “Look at Miss Ohio” gets a firm reading on the new record.
And the tender side that the public finally couldn’t ignore after last year’s country chart-topper (and Grammy winner), “The House That Built Me,” is even more satisfyingly developed here. Lambert’s like a one-woman missing link connecting the legacies of predecessors as disparate as Loretta Lynn, Lynn Anderson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Lucinda Williams.
That said, there are moments on “Four the Record” that don’t recall anybody in particular – especially the sensual, slow-burning “Fine Tune,” which Lambert sings through a bold wall of vocal distortion against a bed of equally raw and unexpected electric guitars.
Closer to Led Zeppelin’s “D’Yer Maker” in sound than anything you’ve heard in country lately, “Fine Tune” is really kin to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” in the sly use of automotive metaphors for reawakened female sexuality. If you hear a sexier song than this year, please, keep it to yourself, lest libidinous riots break out in the streets.
The most trademark-style tune is “Fastest Girl in Town,” which almost feels like an obligatory, concert-ready signature song, though any Lambert album would admittedly feel like a disappointment without at least one rocker this cut-loose.
But it’s the softer side of the former cotton-industry spokeswoman that most impresses this time around – the remaining traces of gunpowder and leftover lead residue notwithstanding.
Lambert brings such a heightened, Lone Star-accented vocal expressiveness to every delightful syllable of a burn-burner like “Fastest Girl” that it’s a shock to hear her damp that vivacity completely down to gentle basics in the following ballad, “Safe.”
Written by Lambert for new husband Blake Shelton, “Safe” couldn’t be a better articulated expression of reciprocal protection and vulnerability in a relationship. And her usually overpowering vocals couldn’t sound more subdued, as if the marriage really has made Lambert feel secure enough than she’s capable of dialing her otherwise welcome sass all the way down.
You get the same vibrant warmth in the closing “Oklahoma Sky.” Written for Lambert as a wedding present by Allison Moorer, in honor of her new (and Shelton’s longtime) home state, this ballad of satisfied minds ought to be adopted as the new state song, if the Okie legislature isn’t already working on it.
But for the most part, “Four the Record” isn’t a confessional statement of newlywed contentment, since Lambert is far too sharp to settle for “settled.”
So while the self-penned “Dear Diamond” sounds from the title alone like it’s going to be a wedding song, it instead turns out to be a deeply felt (and, one hopes, merely imagined) lament about the fears and regrets brought on by a ring that a secretive bride can’t help nervously fingering.
Her vocal collaboration with Shelton, “Better in the Long Run,” turns out to be the album’s most conventionally radio-friendly and least interesting track. Even there, though, you have to give Lambert credit for making the couple’s Big Duet a breakup song, instead of invoking some kind of blissfully wed celebrity schmaltz.
“Four the Record” brings on other pleasures too numerous to mention. That said, it’s tough to resist highlighting “All Kinds of Kinds,” a sweet, bemused anthem of social tolerance… “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a drama queen’s angry mission statement (and, if there’s any justice, the biggest country single of 2012)… “Easy Living,” her version of Merle Haggard’s version of the blues… and “Same Old You,” a comical confession of co-dependency that ends with the most comely yodeling you’ve heard in eons.
The boundary-busting parts of Lambert's personality that come to the fore on "Four the Record" show that she's really one for the country ages — and that doesn't exclude the moments when she reverts to feisty form and fires up the hellcat routine. At 27, she still has plenty of years to be a troubadour and trouble-maker.