Back to Me
So I have this friend who used to have a major crush on Lucinda Williams. But then he played Car Wheels on a Gravel Road four times straight on a long car ride with his wife during the worst point of a marital crisis (his fault). And thereafter Lucinda was totally guitar mama non grata around this loser's house. Then Canada's Kathleen Edwards came along with 2003's winning Failer, which gave my friend something like frozen yogurt to his old high-fat ice cream. Except that's not quite it, because Failer was richer than Williams' '03 album, World Without Tears, and also because Edwards' sad, tuneful, only occasionally bluesy songs are closer to Freedy Johnston than to Lucinda.
Edwards does have some of Williams' 2:45 a.m. tough/soft sexiness. Every time she stretches out the word "come" in the line "I've got ways to make you come back to me" from her new album's title tune, thousands of Midwestern hikers start looking for a place to be alone for a while. (Another hundred listeners wonder if these mysterious "ways" could possibly improve on standbys such as fellatio and intercourse.) But enough filth! This is alt-country, and despite a cameo from the F-word and a lead track about a criminal, Back to Me is an album you can bring home to the family. In fact, Edwards' sometimes bromidic songs and her old-fashioned characters (vintage-dress-wearing, letter-writing types) can seem like aged relatives. The house-fire ballad "Pink Emerson Radio" is pretty enough, but it'd be nice if it had more to say than "You can't take it with you." The closing song assures us that "good things come when you stop looking," which is no truer than "good things come when you start looking" and no more interesting than the late-night drive through the rain that begins another Back to Me tune.
Edwards' lapses are largely counteracted by her sturdy melodies, her hard-hitting session drummers, and, mostly, her voice, which conveys acres of chin-up melancholy without even rolling up its heart-bedecked sleeves. At the apogee of Failer's melodramatic "Six O'Clock News" (answered here with the not-as-good prequel "In State"), Edwards wailed, "I can't feel my broken heart," but I felt it so much it hurt. Nothing digs that deep here, though "Somewhere Else," written by guitarist Jim Bryson and enhanced by Richard Underhill's teary-eyed horn chart, comes close. Walking by her hometown's strip malls, bus stops, and familiar strangers, the song's hero figures everyone in town wants "to live somewhere else"—which isn't the same as planning to move. We gotta get out of this place, in other words. And yes, that is the last thing we'll ever do. DYLAN HICKS
Kathleen Edwards plays Neumo's with Danny Michel at 8 p.m. Sat., June 4. $15 adv.
Misadventures in Radiology
Last night I dreamed that Badly Drawn Boy, Ben Folds, and the ghost of Elliott Smith were on my couch watching Yellow Submarine. When I awoke, I realized I'd fallen asleep to Andrew Morgan's debut album, released earlier this year. I usually detest it when people characterize a talented songwriter's music primarily by comparing it to the work of other (more established) songwriters— I nearly wrestled someone to the ground once for dismissing a particular Smith song as a mere "Nick Drake homage"—but it's undeniable here. The intricate string harmonies of the record's instrumental "Prologue" scream chamber pop, specifically the sort once masterfully propagated by Badly Drawn Boy's Damon Gough. The sparkling instrumentation of "Plight of an Exile," anchored by dueling cello and harpsichord lines, recalls the sense of wonder you find in both Mark Mothersbaugh's compositions for Wes Anderson films and Yann Tiersen's Amélie score. Morgan's bruised-sounding vocals and plaintive lyrics easily bring Folds to mind. The album's title track is its most Smith-like, especially in the weary/wise chorus ("Something must be really wrong/For you to be this way"), yet in places, Morgan's lyrics are more precise in their beauty: "Sometimes spacemen dream in black and white/Shutdown spectrum shows they're not quite right/I hope that you dream in color tonight." It took me a while to warm up to Radiology, and though I know artist comparisons are widely considered faint praise, Morgan wouldn't be the first promising songwriter to start out sounding like others. NEAL SCHINDLER