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Ashley Monroe’s fourth studio effort firmly places the singer/songwriter in a small constellation of country stars who are producing new music likely to stand the test of time. She accomplishes the challenging feat with a set of vivid portraits of real people struggling with ordinary problems. From the deeply somber cello notes on the opening “Orphan,” about surviving the loss of a parent, to the Memphis soul swagger of “Hands on You,” which mixes religious and sexual imagery, Sparrow is not your mama’s country album. On “Wild Love” and “Hard on a Heart,” Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb mashes up 60s countrypolitan lushness with Kristin Wilkinson’s 70s soul- and disco-flavored string arrangements to create an atmosphere both comfortably familiar and thrillingly fresh. It fits Monroe’s youthful albeit world-weary style.
More thematically cohesive than Monroe’s last outing (Blade) and as compelling as 2011’s bluegrass-infused Like a Rose, Sparrow flies on the strength of the singer’s gritty and lived-in voice. Like other great vocalists, her presentation continues to improve with age and experience. The nasal twang that seems a bit accentuated on Monroe’s 2009 debut (Satisfied) is here moderated by a burnished midrange and enhanced with additional textures. On “This Heaven,” Monroe’s vocal twists and turns reveal a performer finally aware of her capabilities. Cobb’s laidback production supplies just enough structure to sustain the song’s emotional weight but avoids overshadowing its subtext about a relationship’s fleeting pleasures. Indeed, Monroe started her career as a contract songwriter. Her past collaborations with icons like Guy Clark and Vince Gill pay off throughout Sparrow. She delivers a number of lyrics with an honesty and conviction that can bring a lump to your throat.
Warner Brothers did a superb job with the LP pressing—the quietest and flattest new vinyl release I’ve heard in years. While no nylon sleeves are used, the surface of my copy is black and free of scuffs. There’s no discernible signature on the lacquers and no indication of who mastered the vinyl, but whoever handled it is a pro. Produced at Nashville’s historic Studio A, bass notes are fulsome and resonant while delicate upper register cues are given plenty of room to breathe. Due credit must also be given to engineer Eddie Spear for the recording’s outstanding EQ—no easy task to preserve on vinyl.
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