Laura Cantrell Is Back With That Amazing Voice and More Brilliant Tunesmithing
The onetime “proprietress” of the wildly popular Radio Thrift Shop on WFMU and BBC Radio Scotland, Laura Cantrell’s career is marked by the same quietly resolute determination that distinguishes her vocals. She’s one of the most extraordinary voices in any kind of music over the last twenty years – she can say more with a single, bittersweet bent note than most singers can in a whole album – and she resists pigeonholing. Cantrell made a name for herself as the greatest of the alt-country singers, then took an abrupt detour into rock, then more or less returned to the roots of her native Nashville (although she’s quick to acknowledge that as a kid, she was a lot more new wave than country). Her new album No Way There from Here (which you can hear on Spotify) is her first collection of originals since 2008’s fetchingly retro-60s Trains and Boats and Planes, and ranks among the best things she’s ever done. The songs are split about 50/50 between more-or-less oldschool country and jangly rock. That “more or less” qualifier is because Cantrell likes to push the envelope: for example, in back of the jangly twelve-string guitars on the album’s wryly knowing opening number, All the Girls Are Complicated (a co-write with Amy Allison), there’s a bass clarinet. Not your typical Nashville instrumentation.
And as much as Cantrell gets props for her voice, she’s a first-class songwriter. One of the best songs here is the biting country fiddle tune Beg and Borrow Days, a swipe at anyone who might have snarkily criticized her early in her career for championing material written by her friends in the Lakeside Lounge scene rather than coming up with her own material. The absolutely heartbroken, anthemic title track is another one, a big anthem with strings and piano and a mandolin that sometimes sounds like a balalaika, Cantrell ending it by morosely quoting the Tennessee Waltz.
Starry Skies paints a warmly vivid nocturnal tableau, with all kinds of neat touches from guitars, accordion and piano. Cantrell sings the steel guitar-driven ballad Glass Armour with a tender concern for a guy who’s gotten off his game and needs to get it back: we should all be so lucky as to have someone so caring in our corner. Barely Said a Thing is pensive mystery story, recounting a sseduction that might or might not go somewhere, set to an oldschool country tune with organ and more of that deliciously jangly twelve-string. Washday Blues is Cantrell at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. The album ends with Someday Sparrow, evoking Neko Case with its mix of disheartened vulnerability and guarded optimism over a purist dobro-fueled C&W melody.
As intensely emotional as a lot of these songs are, Cantrell also has a fun side, and there’s lighthearted, upbeat stuff here too: the woozily optimistic after-the-party ballad Letter She Sent; the absolutely irresistible, briskly shuffing banjo tune Driving Down Your Street; the steadily strolling, bucolic When It Comes to You; and Allison’s breathless Can’t Wait. Cantrell is on UK tour right now; the remaining showdates are here.