Kathleen Edwards – Failer

I keep wondering if this thing called country-rock (you could call it alt-country, roots, whatever you want) has maybe run its course. Whatever you call it, the Gram Parsons-inspired combination of straight-ahead, guitar-fronted twang and intelligent, personal, and often surprising lyrics was one of the best musical ideas of the last couple of decades. It undermined brilliantly the deadening drone of the “Top 40 Country” stations – with their recycled, banal sentiments – while at the same time offering an alternative to the shoe-staring of early 90’s grunge and the alienating coldness of dancehall electronica. It gave both melody and melancholy a comfortable home, and even became hip with the underground advent of Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks, and Whiskeytown. Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road threw the possibilities wide open, and already there was a grassroots movement of local bands nationwide providing more than enough of a fix for the growing alt-country cult.
Eventually, though, it had to happen that all those four-chord gems would start to grow a little repetitive, and all that pedal steel and Dobro would get a little cloying. So has that happened? Is it dead already? Well, an interesting thing occurred. First, Emmylou Harris teamed with producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel) to record Wrecking Ball, one of the single best albums of the 90s. It echoed with atmospherics. Distorted guitars and ghostly backing vocals floated under Harris’s understated, heartbreaking vocals on a collection of songs from a diverse array of artists, all the way from Kate and Anna McGarrigle to Jimi Hendrix. This sure as hell wasn’t another Gram Parsons rip-off. In the meantime, Wilco was on its way to producing first the Beach Boys-inspired pop album Summerteeth, and then last year’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a masterpiece that vaulted them straight out of the alt-country universe. As for the other two members of the original triumvirate of bands, the new Jayhawks album sounds like pre-Parsons Byrds, and Ryan Adams has departed Whiskeytown for rock idol status.
It seems as though no one – or at least, no one at the top of the heap – is willing to record another Uncle Tupelo album or another Car Wheels. And given the overall quality of what they’re all recording now, that’s probably a good thing, right? But now a new artist from Canada has arrived, and apparently she didn’t get the memo. Kathleen Edwards’s debut album, Failer, has drawn comparisons mostly to early Lucinda Williams, and this is almost certainly because of its steadfast dedication to straightforward country-rock instrumentation (it sounds a lot like Williams’s Sweet Old World), though Edwards’s voice doesn’t hurt, either. It falls neatly between Lucinda’s and Neil Young’s, with its wavery quiet moments and barely-holding-on-to-the-tune louder ones.
The real genius of Failer is that at only 24 (and maybe younger when she actually wrote the songs) Edwards writes and sings with conviction and authority. She can be at turns bold, vulnerable, crazy, and wise, and it never sounds fabricated. This is, I think, why the relative uninventiveness of the music doesn’t result in stale-sounding songs. The first track, “Six O’Clock News,” tells the story of a woman watching her down-on-his-luck boyfriend get shot by police during a hold-up. I keep thinking that if Garth Brooks had written the same song (it has country music written all over it) the result would make me want to jump out the nearest window. From Edwards, though, there’s never a breath of hokiness, and she makes the predicament sound even realistic, and truly heartbreaking: “They cleared the streets and then they closed the schools / And I can’t even get inside.” The song, smartly, becomes more about the narrator than the boyfriend, trying desperately to hold on to whatever life she’s got, even though it’s a life with this unstable guy, so she pleads, “You could do a little time and save my broken heart.”
Elsewhere she continues to narrate these middle American (okay, Canadian) story-songs, with the lyrical highlight coming in “Westby,” a story of an affair, when she announces, “If you weren’t so old I would keep you; / if you weren’t so old I’d tell my friends,” and wait for the punchline: “But I don’t think your wife would like my friends.” I’m 24 too and I’ve never met anyone nearly this cool.
The rest is a walk through lives of sex, drugs, music, and lonely drives home. This sounds like tired cliché, and I suppose it is, but it always sounds fresh and honest. There are no fabricated dusty roads and juke joints here, but a very contemporary look at the highs and the pitfalls of love that would sound familiar to anyone.
But before I lead you into thinking that there’s nothing here but traditional country-fried heartbreak and hard luck with a dash of aw-shucks humor, what separates Edwards as a songwriter is her ability to switch seamlessly from frank simplicity to odd and daring turns of phrase. This is the hook that keeps you involved in the album from first track to last (with the exception of “The Lone Wolf,” the one real departure into cliché). Her sense of humor and mischief are with her throughout, but she’s sophisticated enough that the repeated refrain line “Are you writing this all down?” from “National Steel,” maybe the album’s standout, has a strong sense of accusation and gravity to it. This song is less linear than the rest in terms of narrative, which makes it feel more personal and maybe lends it some of its weight.
One of my favorite notes about this album is that the first single (you can hear it in the Bronx’s 90.7 WFUV, that fine guardian of roots music of various forms) is called “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like.” And this is from a brand-new artist, mind you, though obviously one who’s well aware of what she’s doing, its background, and its future. Hopefully Kathleen Edwards will be a big part of that future. She’s a mature and daring artist entering crowded waters, but she’s got the skills (never mind the cajones) to be one of the top artists of her generation. It’s certainly turned this reviewer into a gushy fan and made me want to go on quoting it until I abuse my fair use privileges. So take my word for it and believe the hype. This is the most promising young artist since Rufus Wainwright.