Helping Alt-Adults Get a Way, With More Than Just Lucinda Lite

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. But 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’s ’03 album World Without Tears, and also because Edwards’s sad, tuneful, only occasionally bluesy songs are closer to Freedy Johnston than to Lucinda.

Edwards does have some of Williams’s 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’s 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’s 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.

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