In an era when conventional wisdom is that the album is dead (it isn’t really – Avi Fox-Rosen has already put out six of them this year and plans six more) Linda Draper has just released her seventh, Edgewise. Nonchalantly and methodically, she’s built a body of work as one of the most singularly intelligent and individualistic tunesmiths in any kind of music. In a way, this album brings her full circle with her 2001 debut, Ricochet. That collection of catchy, sharply lyrical acoustic rock was produced by the legendary Kramer, who famously worked with Lou Reed and Ween among others. This time around, Draper turned the production over to Americana maven Matt Keating, who also serves as a one-man band here, playing all sorts of guitars, keys, bass and percussion (plus Jason Mercer holding down the four-string on the third track). It’s Draper’s most lyrically straightforward and musically best album, eleven songs in just under 38 minutes. Notes and words are never wasted, and Draper’s voice, always a strength, is even more nuanced and self-assured than usual, sailing through the highs and hitting the lows with special oomph.
As one might expect, Keating plays up the rootsy influences lurking in Draper’s tunes. The opening track, Glass Palace starts hazy and pensive but picks up with a hypnotic pulse like Mazzy Star on steroids, the narrator daring her ex-friend to walk a mile in her shoes from her “palace off the boulevard.” Right On Time snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, Draper’s blithe cynicism highlighted by swirly organ:
The war is over today
At least for a little while they say
Since then ten have taken its place
I don’t even know where to begin anymore
Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime
Hollow works a haunting, insistent folk noir riff: “Left right march to the beat of the monotonous humdrum, get it out of your system.” she encourages. The title track sets a litany of surreallistically sarcastic imagery to a swaying countrypolitan tune that reminds of vintage Amy Rigby, followed by the grimly nocturnal Take It, contemplating how nothing’s going to save this couple from the ravages of time, whether now or later.
The brooding, minor-key Sleepwalkers pairs off resonant, ringing electric guitar and plinky ukulele against funeral organ, its soaring chorus contrasting with its ominous lyrics:
As you travel among the sleepwalkers
Even the purest of angels would crash and burn
In a place like this
Keating’s guitar gives the Johnny Cash-influenced Shadow of a Coal Mine a southwestern gothic flavor, while Live Wire works a dark Eilen Jewell-esque garage rock vibe with echoey Rhodes piano, distorted Strat and reggae-tinged bass. In Good Hands, a waltz with elegant gospel piano, manages to be both sarcastic and bittersweet
It’s a shame you couldn’t make it to my wedding
To embarrass me somehow…
Some hipster just sarcastically sold me his friends’ band’s t-shirt
They’re so underground they call themselves dirt
The album ends up with Draper’s rootsiest, most bluegrass-inflected song, So Long: “Maybe there’s no difference in disillusion and despair,” she broods. There’s also a cover of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, which isn’t bad, but Bettye LaVette’s shattering version has made that song off limits from this point on. And it’s testament to the strength of Draper’s songwriting that all her originals are better than that song anyway. As expected, this is a stealth contender for best album of 2013.