Review: Kathleen Edwards’ “Asking For Flowers”

Mar 12, 2008 10:36am

Ottawa’s Kathleen Edwards is often labeled as a country singer.  Perhaps she is a country singer, but she comes with a rock attitude and the attention to soft detail of a singer-songwriter. Perhaps this is why she gets the “alt-country” label as well. Her 2003 debut album “Failer” set her apart from the pack with depressing tales of low-level crime, love lost, general unhappiness and of course hockey skates.  (She is Canadian, after all!) The album won immediate raves and many have drawn comparisons to obvious heroes like Neil Young, Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams.  The Young comparison is perhaps the most apt, considering the two performers deliver their lines with what seems like a similar accent. (That might make sense since Neil is Canadian and from Ontario, too!)  Her devil-may-care attitude also could get her comparisons to alt-country’s most prolific poster-boy, Ryan Adams.  Both seem equally versed in classic country traditions with glimpses of punk-filtered irreverence.  Edwards doesn’t rock quite like Adams does.  The comparison lies more in the attitude than the music.  In 2005, she released her second record, “Back To Me,” which while not as strong as her debut, did produce the catchy title track, and the wonderfully acerbic “In State.”  Now, three years later, she has returned with “Asking For Flowers,” and it recalls the greatness of “Failer” in a big way, although it still does not surpass it.  It opens with “Buffalo,” a quiet, slow-churner of a mood-piece.  Starting with something on the stark end of the scale is a bold move, but Edwards has the chops to pull it off.  It helps that the song has a memorable melody, and that it soars and expands a little as chorus picks up, augmenting the bare piano with guitar, drums and a highly dramatic string section.  It’s among her best and it should be a single.  The album’s actual first single arrives next with “The Cheapest Key,” a cheeky, mid-tempo country-rock workout recalling the mood of the title track to her last album.  As she makes up words for each note of the scale, (“A is for all the times I bit my tongue”) you realize this is a woman done wrong who is out for revenge.  This is the pose that Edwards holds the best.  Even though you know you’d never want to cross her, there’s a sweetness underneath it all that makes you want to root for her.  She also attacks the subject with a lot of cleverness.  In the chorus, she sings, “You always write it in the cheapest key.” (Who is she addressing, another songwriter?  I had no idea that the scale had a ranking system!)  This track strongly illustrates Edwards’ appeal.  The title track for “Asking For Flowers” is next, and it’s a rather mellow, almost confessional example of country-ballad know-how.  Not that anything off this record would necessarily appeal to mainstream country radio.  I suspect it is a little too organic sounding and not glossy enough, but that’s their loss and our gain.  Also, because she is Canadian, Edwards lacks twang in her vocal delivery, which I also suspect might not go down well with those decision makers in Nashville. Perhaps she’s always known this, since after all, she is the one who once recorded a track called “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like.”  Her depressing sentiments also come off as real and not for show.  She is as authentic in her songwriting and her delivery as they come.  “Alicia Ross” is in a similar atmospheric realm as “Buffalo.”  You can imagine her singing songs like this surrounded by snow-covered farm-country, looking out to a grey skyline.  Her hangdog, deadpan delivery allows all the sadness inside to seep to the surface.  This is her dynamic gift.  With its countrified guitar-line, “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” is perhaps the closest thing to a conventional country track Edwards has ever recorded and although the instrumentation comes off as attempt to court the mainstream, her lyrical skill gets her through.  Her comparisons in the lyrics are priceless. (“You’re the buffet, I’m just the table. / I’m a Ford Tempo, you’re a Maserati.  You’re the Great One, I’m Marty McSorley!”) There’s humor in her self-deprecation, but as she sings, she gives a voice to down-trodden underdogs everywhere.  “Oil Man’s War” is a ballad of two lovers, Bobby and Annabel who perhaps settle in Canada to escape the war.  “When we get up north, we’ll buy us a store. / I won’t fight in an oil man’s war.”  Edwards really can tell a story.    Next comes a song radio definitely won’t like, the soft and beautiful “Sure as S__t.”  It’s just Edwards and an acoustic guitar, but it shows how nicely she works with sparse arrangements and empty space.  “Run” is another slow-burner.  Edwards often uses the same scale, and this is a slower variation on a formula she previously used on her song “Six O’clock News” as well as on “In State.”  “Oh Canada,” with its gutsy title also sounds familiar, because it uses the same scale as well only to more pointed effect.  With its angrier delivery, it recalls the track “Maria” from “Failer.”  The gritty track is about gun violence and inequity of news coverage.  Her point, if a white girl gets shot, it’s all over the news, whereas if the victim is black, it’s sadly treated with “ambivalence.” A similar point has been made across the media in regards to missing women, how missing white women often have the media up in arms, whereas if the victim is African-American, the chances of the same level of media coverage are less.  Such disparities should be fixed.  “Scared at Night” is another sparse number about being afraid of the dark as a child.  This is then combined with a rather gruesome story about accidentally shooting a cat in the eye.  While, it’s not pretty, it does show her strengths as a writer.  In all ends with the understated six-minute “Goodnight California.” Again, it is a typically bleak Edwards number, but it definitely shows she has a rather consistent style and personality.  If you’ve never hear Kathleen Edwards, “Failer” is still her classic and the best place to start, but “Asking For Flowers” continues nicely in that album’s tradition.

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