Strong production keeps 'Annie Up' -- the new album from Pistol Annies -- from being something their debut effort certainly was not: boring. The women thrive among thick, bluesy guitars that moan and wail throughout the 12 cuts. It's a throwback sound that fits the trio as well as the daring outfits they've become known for wearing.

Lyrically, this sophomore project lacks teeth. Perhaps it's just that the Annies no longer have the advantage of surprise, but rarely does one feel the discomfort of real life pains and emotions digging into the heart and soul. The stories have become sanitized.

There are a few exceptions. 'I Feel a Sin Comin' On' comes alive with attitude and danger. It's similar in tone to 'Hell on Heels,' but an entirely new presentation. "I got a feeling it's gonna leave a lipstick stain / And I'll be the only one to blame" they sing after an acapella opening. The next song is 'Hush Hush,' and it sizzles in a way it doesn't as a standalone single.

Ashley Monroe's melancholy performance on 'Blues, You're a Buzz Kill' is the only other gut-punch or stop-and-listen moment, although it's not the only other highlight. 'Loved by a Working Man' is a sweet love song with a great guitar groove, and 'Damn Thing' is as much fun as these three women have had together on a record.

Conversely, there's the wafer-thin 'Being Pretty Ain't Pretty,' a song you'll listen to more than once expecting to find some larger metaphorical purpose. There isn't one. This song about the pains of getting ready each morning is honest, but not one that sticks to your ribs. 'Don't Talk About Him, Tina,' Miranda Lambert's solo moment, is a fun story, but it slogs along, as does the sleepy 'Girls Like Us.'

Pistol Annies set a high bar with 'Hell on Heels,' an album that left one feeling like he or she went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. They make strides with the arrangements and production on 'Annie Up,' but the stories aren't as sharp and the messages aren't nearly as emotional.

3 Stars

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