Contrary to what the country airplay charts may tell you, the last decade has been a creatively fertile season for the women of Nashville: think of Kacey Musgraves’s small-town cynicism, Miranda Lambert’s kerosene-soaked rabble rousing, even the feisty, confessional songwriting of teenage Taylor Swift. You’ll hear echoes of all three singer/songwriters on Open Book, an assured new album from Kalie Shorr. Just 25 years old, Shorr is young enough that she ostensibly could have been raised on the recorded output of those three women, and in many ways her songwriting bears the fruit of all the toil put in by her foremothers: It’s an album that exults in the freedom to be both grounded in tradition yet unbeholden to it; as rooted and as restless as it wants to be. These songs are loaded with tang, from fleet-fingered guitar picking to high and lonesome pedal steel, but Shorr’s traditionalism is filtered through chiming rock, petulant pop-punk, and, on curdled album closer “Angry Butterfly,” something pretty close to grunge.
Shorr’s writing is confident and questioning in equal measure: “I’m an open book with an open ending,” she declares on “Too Much to Say,” and the whole album bears witness to a woman who knows who she is but is amenable to whatever forks in the road her life may take her down. A cheeky album highlight called “F U Forever” sounds harsher than any of Swift’s legendarily resolute kiss-offs, yet its fury is channeled through careful craft; the song title promises cheerful vulgarity, but Shorr uses her profanity sparingly, in service of a brutally funny punchline at the song’s close. “Gatsby” opens with moaning steel and sawing fiddle, suggesting straight-ahead honky-tonk but almost immediately thumbing country conservatism with riotous one-liners (“I don’t really like dating assholes/But I do it ‘cause I have a weird relationship with my dad”). These songs revel in ferocity, but Shorr spends just as much time exploring vulnerability as talking tough. “Messy” laments the collapse of a couple who kept things squeaky clean on the outside while letting resentments fester just below the surface; best of all is “Escape,” about how everyone has their drug of choice but the best high of all is hitting the road and leaving all your problems behind. It’s just one of many moments on Open Book to reveal a songwriter who’s sure of her lineage, but discontented by sounding like anyone but herself.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | December 2019