On the Ropes is a swift follow-up from The Honeycutters to last year’s breakout Me Oh My (read the album review here), twangsome singer Amanda Ann Platt again in the producer’s chair, sharing duties with Tim Surrett, the fourth album from the Asheville, North Carolina quintet sticks with the winning formula but bolsters it with a poppier edge and a wider thematic range to the lyrics.
As before, save for one cover, Platt is responsible for all the songs, kicking off with the jaunty, organ-backed, scales-descending country-rocking title track, adopting the boxing term to talk about a relationship falling apart as Platt sings how she “paid a lot to feel this bad” but has no intention of throwing in the towel on this “thousand dollar hangover.”
They follow this with Blue Besides, a scuffed, off beat drum riff introducing a classic sounding country number about the need to take chances and let go rather than settle for easy answers if you really want to live, adopting another metaphor in the line “that golden harp you’re playing, it was your ticket out of town. Now you’re gonna lay it down there in the dust”, fellow band member Matthew Smith adding colour on pedal steel.
The mid-tempo country soul Golden Child fleshes the sound out with more dominant organ and electric guitar, again using a music context (“standing backstage with a guitar and a beer”) for a memorable chorus about waiting for the right moment to come along. Tai Taylor on mandolin with Jeff Collins providing piano, the pace picks up for the swing-influenced The Handbook (which features harmony from trio Sweet Claudette), a wry comment about not always looking to follow the guidebook clichés to find romance and, yet again, not letting the moment pass as, in the last line, she observes “when your ship is sailing you’d better learn to swim.”
By contrast, The Only Eyes takes a slow sway through a song about past romantic failures, Platt’s delivery underscoring those comparisons to such greats as Lucinda Williams and Loretta Lynn. With Platt’s father, Mark, on harmonica, things punch up again for Back Row, a song about making choices and taking chances that has some of the album’s best lyrics and closes with the band stretching out on extended instrumental break.
Keening steel, mandolin and Josh Milligan’s brushed snare paves the way for Useless Memories, another slow tempo waltzer, here about holding on to the fuzzily warm comforts of the past to avoid facing the present and the future, while, another ballad (and another example of her gift for choruses), Piece of Heaven mines familiar honky-tonk territory about taking love for granted and only realizes what you had when you’ve lost it. They stay in the honky-tonk but order up a lot more beers with the rowdier, piano pounding and self-descriptive Let’s Get Drunk.
Another highlight arrives on pedal steel wings with the broken-hearted/fall from grace themed 500 Pieces (“it took four strong men to take you, took the whole damn world to break you”), the subject of the song now living a lonely life in a cheap hotel room. But, if that hurts, stripped to the bone for just muted electric guitar, a bluesy Ache puts the emotions through the wringer as Platt sings in the persona of a woman whose pride won’t let her admit the hurt her break-up has brought.
The penultimate cut is the sole cover, a bluegrass take on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that’s well sung and shows invention but, with its uptempo pacing, somewhat drains the song of the melancholia at its heart. Still, it’s a minor blip, and the album ends on a major high with Barmaid’s Blues, which draws together the album’s musings on lost chances and empty tomorrows in a seven-minute story in the voice of an old western saloon barmaid in a town where the gunslingers now wear rings and have barroom girls ironing their shirts, as, in a reversal of the usual scenario, she pours out her heart to a late night customer about how, the stubborn kind, she drove away all her hopes of love, leaving behind “just you and me, Joe, and the ghost of something great here in the room.” Unquestionably one of the finest Americana albums of 2016; you really do want to be in their corner.
Released 12 September 2016 (UK Release) via Organic Records