No one does anguish quite like Ashley Monroe. On her new album, 'Like a Rose,' the singer redefines bittersweet for a country music audience that is still very much learning her name. Her sorrow comes sprinkled with just a teaspoon of sugar when she's at her best. One finds hope in the face of tragedy and bad circumstance, which is at times inspiring.

The autobiographical title track is the best song on 'Like a Rose.' Monroe's vocal performance is delicate (yet captivating), but it's the inclusion of Vince Gill that lifts it to rare air. You finish, thinking: "How can this girl be only 26 years old?"

In some ways Monroe has lived a tortured life, but she remains upbeat for the majority of the project. "Plucky" is a word no one would use to describe any of the nine songs, but her fiesty and rebellious sense of humor shines through when singing about ways to spice up a marriage ('Weed Instead of Roses') and ways to make a living when your back is up against the wall ('Monroe Suede'). There's more than a dash of fantasy on this latter track, but in the context of the other eight songs, one is left to wonder exactly how much.

Gill's fingerprints are all over the album, and a better recording partner may not exist for the Pistol Annie known as Hippie Annie. Together, they commit fully to a traditional sound -- songs like 'Two Weeks Late' and 'Morning After' could have been written and recorded the same way 50 years ago.

"Room spinning around faster and faster / Drowning in the midnight laughter / But nothing hits / Nothing hurts like the morning after," Monroe sings, revealing memories and emotions so naked she risks frostbite. The honesty is startling at times.

"I know I'm not some brand new dress, hanging there perfectly pressed / That never has been worn / I've got some buttons missing / And there's a couple stains in places where the fabric has been torn / But in the end I'll be worth a whole lot more / Used," she sings on 'Used,' another sterling example of sharp songwriting.

'Like a Rose' is an artist's album. The duet with Blake Shelton that closes the project will end up getting the most recognition but at best 'You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter)' is the fourth-best song of the nine (although it may be the first to namecheck 'The Voice' and '50 Shades of Grey' seamlessly).

If there is any criticism to be made, it's that 'Like a Rose' lacks diversity, or that it tells a similar story one too may times. That only becomes apparent after a ninth or 10th listen, though. Few albums are worthy of that many spins these days, so it's difficult to linger for long on that thought.

4 Stars

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