Graded on a Curve:
Kathleen Edwards,
Failer

“And you can’t even make up my mind/Another song the radio won’t like.”

If you ask me, and I don’t really know why you would seeing as how I’m not very smart and a renowned prevaricator to boot, Kathleen Edwards is the Queen of Alt-Country. “Ah,” but I can hear you saying, “Lucinda Williams is the Queen of Alt-Country.” And you might be right. So let’s just say they’re the co-Queens of Alt-Country, and avoid lots of useless bickering. It’s not like the position comes with a crown or bejeweled scepter or anything. Hell, people don’t even have to bow in your presence.

One could question Edwards’ bona fides, seeing as how she didn’t grow up in Texas or Mississippi or Tennessee or any of your good-for-nothin’-but-producing-country-stars Dixie states (just joshin’). She’s Canadian, for Christ’s sake, and spent her formative years overseas, the daughter of a diplomat. In short, she’s about as authentically “country” as Nico, and I suspect she’s never been within a mile of a three-legged pig. But who cares? Country is a state of mind, and to get to that state you don’t have to drive a battered Ford pickup down any gravel roads way off the interstate, where the roadhouses (and I mean all of them) have neon signs with one letter on the fritz. All you need is a guitar, a couple of albums by Loretta Lynn, and an attitude.

And Edwards has attitude in spades. The first song of her songs I ever heard was “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like.” It was so lovely, yet simultaneously scathing, that I became an immediate fan. She had it all: great songs with great lyrics, and the voice of a bruised but unbowed angel. It didn’t hurt that the album it came off was called Failer, which led me to believe, true or not, that she shared my belief that we humans were placed on earth to fail, and fuck up things real good. I mean I know it’s just a theory, but you have to admit that the history of our species backs me up.

But enough of that. The point I’m trying to make is that I felt, seeing that title, that I had found a kindred spirit, and one who could write and sing like an angel no less. But Edwards is an angel with an edge, who can be sarcastic or cruelly ironic or plain dead funny when called for, which makes her the best of all possible angels, one who has been expelled from Heaven.

Failer, Edwards’ 2003 debut, combines wondrous melodies with nakedly honest lyrics about love and the 3,000 ways it has of making your life a misery. Edwards has a sharp tongue, and can be sarcastic or cruelly ironic or plain dead funny when called for. Throw in lots of great musicians making an irresistible noise, and what you have is a no-lose proposition.

Take opener “Six O’Clock News” (not to be confused with the John Prine tune of the same name). It’s an irresistible love song written from the point of view of a woman whose man has gone off the edge, like seriously, as in a shooting spree or something of that sort. The tune is spritely and reminds me, oddly enough, of a Jackson Browne (the thinking man’s Eagle) tune, but a good one, a great one even. The subject matter is devastating, because she not only loves her “failer” but is carrying his child, and now here he is on the six o’clock news. The line “You spend half your live trying to turn the other half around” is wonderful, and the only thing I find off-putting is that not only does the song remind me of Jackson Browne, but also includes that guitar sound unique to his records, and which has always made me big queasy.

“One More Song the Radio Won’t Like” is the album highlight, what with its impossibly catchy melody and wonderful lines, “You can’t even make up my mind.” There’s a great guitar solo, then another great line in “Nobody likes a girl who won’t sober up,” then yet another solo. But the best part is Edwards’ vocals, which are sultry yet resigned, and for good reason as it turns out, because as it turns out the radio didn’t like the song, great as it is. “Hockey Skates” is also great, a slow and quiet number with some excellent guitar playing. Edwards once again sounds resigned as she sings, “I am tired of playing defense/And I don’t even have hockey skates/Don’t even have hockey skates” and “You can meet me at 10:30/But I won’t be there I’ll be gone.” And it also includes a lovely bridge that will make you sad if you’re a normal human being with normal emotions, which also goes for follow-up “The Lone Wolf,” on which Edwards sings nonsense syllables and tells a cryptic tale while the band plays a lovely lullaby. “And the rain fell down on the tin roof,” she sings, “When the hunters came down that night/They stole all her memories and all the wolf’s lives,” and I have no idea what any of it means but it touches me the way a great song should.

The upbeat “12 Bellevue” features some cool feedback guitar and saxophones of many persuasions, not to mention a great guitar solo that sings like a telephone wire while those horns blare away, while the dirge-like “Mercury” is a stripped-down mystery of a song about the complications of longing, what with Edwards singing, “Wanna go get high?/Mercury is parked outside under the light/Wanna take me to/Parking lot of the old high school?” only to add, “And it’s like you said/Would turned up dead in the car.” The whole song hinges on Edward’s heavenly vocals, which give nothing away; like in that old Bob Seger song, she leaves you searching for a mystery without any clues. Meanwhile, the upbeat “Westby” rocks and it rolls, while Edwards sings in a raucous voice, “If you weren’t so old I would probably keep you,” and best of all, “But I don’t think your wife would like (the next two words in a whisper) my friends.”

“Maria” opens with some big guitar and roars like a tractor-trailer down the interstate, and boasts a great chorus with some cool backing vocals leading up to a tremendous guitar solo. “And now I’m high on the road/Trying to get home” sings Edwards in the aftermath of a romantic break-up, and once again the guitar reminds me inexplicably of Jackson Browne, but it’s growing on me. “Could you make it/All right?” she sings, and you get the idea is a big fat no. “National Steel” is another highlight, a slow and sweet number that opens with just Edwards on vocal and a guitar, and she sings forlornly before reaching the wonderfully transcendent lines, “Are you writing this song down?/Are you writing this song down?” And in comes the band, to play a lovely interlude, which Edwards follows with the lines “Trading your daughter/Two thousand dollars/For a National Steel.” After which she repeats, “Are you writing this song down?” over and over as the song snakes it way, guitar ringing, towards the end.

As for LP closer “Sweet Lil’ Duck,” I didn’t find the title promising, but it’s another slow and quiet one, sad but with a lovely melody and lots of great acoustic guitar and a big rumbling guitar about a woman who’s tired of waiting for her man: “’Cause you got me on your shelf and I just sit here/Thinkin’ about when everything was right/And you say, you don’t got any answers/Well, I’m tired of you not makin’ up your mind/And on Tuesday, I’ll be back for my things.”

It’s not that often that you hear a single song by a musician and just know in your heart that they not only have the capacity to move you, but that in some small way they’re going to change you forever. Edwards is such an artist, and the three LPs she’s released subsequent to Failer have given me no reason to change my mind. Queen of Alt-Country or not she moves me, and frequently in a quiet way that in the case of a lesser artist would leave me cold. I’m a rocker, but I love Edwards’ music, regardless of whether she sobers up or owns a pair of hockey skates.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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