Lara Ewen has a 10 PM Friday night residency this November at the Path Cafe on Christopher St. just west of 7th Ave. South. The cover graphic for her new album The Wishing Stone Songs depicts the outline of a woman with her head in her hands, but her songs are far more lively than that image implies. When she’s not evoking the Dixie Chicks at their late-career best (after Natalie Maines dissed George W. Bush), Ewen’s doing cool new things with classic country songwriting. One of the best songs here has the sly sophistication of Ewen’s pal Kelli Rae Powell; another sounds like the acoustic Grateful Dead. The production of the album is fresh and live-sounding, stripped to the bare necessities (sometimes just a couple of guitars and no bass, other times with just a cajon for percussion) without being skeletal.
Ewen has a twang in her voice, an ear for a catchy hook, great taste in arrangements and an aphoristic lyrical style that looks back to classic C&W even though the songs here range from citybilly to a more purist take on folk-pop. In other words, this isn’t top 40. The first track, Death Better Take Me Dancing introduces a dark humor that recurs throughout the album: over a catchy, lithe, fiddle-driven groove, Ewen makes it clear that she wants to go out standing up and still moving fast. One Day sounds like Sheryl Crow without the cliches and some absolutely gorgeous flatpicking, while the pensive waltz How to Be Your Girl balances delicately plucked fiddle against lush washes of strings, Ewen sardonically pondering how to handle a relationship that actually might not go straight to hell in a hurry.
She keeps the brooding sarcasm going with A Whole Lot Worse, an all-too-true story of a woman settling for a guy who doesn’t completely suck. set to spiky, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and washes of Gerald Menke pedal steel. The most imaginative arrangement here is Restless: Ewen takes a bluesy Appalachian-style ballad and makes piano-based chamber pop out of it. She goes back to waltz time for the duet Keeping It In, a bitter post-breakup barroom ballad:
Now I wanna make you feel worthless
No one could blame me for trying
I’m worn out like a screw that’s been stripped
From being turned around so many times
By contrast, All the Way There is a deliciously catchy, upbeat highway anthem: with its rich web of acoustic and electric guitars, it’ll resonate with anybody who likes the idea of driving barefoot. The narrator of the swaying, bluesy-infused Reckless defiantly insists that she’s going to get back on top of her game:
I let my callouses soften
Let my heart go black
And I’m gonnna beat on my chest
Til I feel it beating back
Then Ewen goes back to brooding mode for the haunting, Waits-ish down-and-out scenario Breakdown Lane. A couple of tracks here veer closer to the softer side of New Nashville: the funky, metaphorically-charged Hospital Song, and the wryly seductive Outlaw Song. All together, it’s a musically purist, cleverly lyrical mix of some of the best things happening in Americana right now.