Pins & Needles is a star-making turn for Hemby, the rare gimmick-free studio debut that simply rips.
You probably know a lot of Natalie Hemby songs, even if you don’t know that they are Natalie Hemby songs. To call her either a game collaborator or a go-to hitmaker would be selling her short; for a decade and a half, she has straddled the line between country music’s mainstream and its margins better than almost anyone, cowriting banner songs with the likes of Keith Urban and Sunny Sweeney, Kacey Musgraves and Brothers Osborne. (She may also be the only person whose writing credits adorn the albums of Amy Grant and Lady Gaga.) Following her turn in the limelight as one fourth of The Highwomen, Hemby truly comes into her own with Pins & Needles, an album that might as well be her solo debut, 2017’s self-released, under-the-radar Puxico notwithstanding. At once confident and modest, eclectic and intimate, it’s an album that eschews many of the trappings of the long-anticipated-solo-record, and it’s better because of it. There’s no grand conceit here, no extensive backstory, no obvious autobiographical skeleton holding these songs in place. Instead, Pins & Needles plays like a rowdy collection of singles, a pristine portfolio from a woman who just loves writing songs. In a way, maybe that’s all we need to know about her.
Though not pitched explicitly as a memoir, Pins and Needles does behold Hemby in full flourishing. Everything that makes her a special talent is represented here, starting with her zeal to collaborate: The heart-fluttering, pace-quickening title song is a co-write with Brothers Osborne, while the driving “New Madrid” shares a byline with the great Canadian troubadour Rose Cousins. “Banshee,” an irrepressible confection of whistling and synths, boasts a songwriting credit from Miranda Lambert, perhaps the biggest marquee name you’ll find on Hemby’s resume, but the song also speaks to Pins and Needles’ ace in the hole: Producer Mike Wrucke, who also happens to be Hemby’s husband. He brings texture, color, kinetic energy, and a palpable sense of fun to the whole record, fleshing out Hemby’s grounding in country but also her affinity for late-’90s roots-rock a la Sheryl Crow. (Hemby has half-jokingly referenced this album as her tribute to the glory days of Lilith Fair.) If you thought The Highwomen just a shade too austere, Pins and Needles offers one remedy after another: The boisterous banjo stomp in “Hardest Part About Business,” the lovelorn stutter in “Radio Silence,” the good-natured jamming in “It Takes One to Know One.” These vivid accoutrements enliven songs about love and heartbreak, the risk of meeting your heroes and the perils of sudden success, and they ensure that Pins and Needles feels like the bright, personable, star-making turn that Hemby deserves.
Published as part of Album Roundup — October 2021 | Part 2.