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Kathleen Edwards

I'll admit it: I want to get inside Kathleen Edwards' ... head. Listening to her confident, ripe and ready debut album, Failer, I wonder what the world looks like through her eyeballs, like a character in "Being John Malkovich."

Better that than to be the older married man she draws with such a withering combination of compassion and contempt in "Westby." Impulsive, unpredictable behavior is described with breathtaking artfulness and craft. She sort of digs the guy ("If you weren't so old I'd probably keep you/ If you weren't so old I'd tell my friends"), but not so much that she can resist robbing him: "You passed out so I flicked through cable/ And I stole your gold watch off the bedside table."

Failer begins with the two near-perfect songs that have quickly made Edwards an alt-rock radio heroine. In "Six O'Clock News," the focus is on a boyfriend, Peter, who's snapped, flashed a gun, perhaps taken hostages; the girlfriend watches the drama unfold on TV. In intensely compressed verses, she tells their whole story. The family farm failed, then his father died, his mother wants nothing to do with him, the girlfriend is pregnant with his child, they could get a place to live in an affordable neighborhood when he gets out of jail.... Too late, he wouldn't drop the gun and the cop killed him, she's numb. That's a remarkable amount of information and emotion to convey in three melodic verses and two choruses, but Edwards and her band nail it so you can't forget it.

"One More Song the Radio Won't Like" is of course, a lie: Radio loves this song. Or at least it's loved by the adult alternative/college radio/alt-rock stations that have enabled artists from Wilco to Lucinda Williams to make a decent living without the help of the giddy dolts on TRL or the faceless Oz that operates the Clear Channel cookie cutter.

Leave it to Edwards to figure out an interesting way to approach a topic that is to lazy songwriters what patriotism is to scoundrels. Edwards, contrarily, gives the title line her most supple, sing-along melody. The story (for Edwards is a storyteller more than songwriter) is right off the Aimee Mann self-help section, oozing with loathing for "Johnny little rocket star," personification of the clueless major label A&R man. The singer is in full-scale rebellion against his advice: "Write a hit so I can talk you up/ No one likes a girl who won't sober up." But she's defiant, choosing her "Wire cars and whiskey" over compromise, at least for this joker.

Musically, the superficial comparisons are easy: she's got the casual intensity and cadence of Lucinda Williams, riding the barbed wire edge of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Edwards' voice and her acoustic guitar provide the core of these lean but never-emaciated arrangements. Jim Bryson is the electric lead guitarist who brings the edginess out. Fleshing out the tunes are occasional horns ("12 Bellevue"). Also in the mix are plenty of tracks with slide, pedal steel, banjo, but their effect is subtle: not alt-country as much as they are more strings that rock. Edwards produced the album with Dave Draves, the keyboard player who apparently runs the Ottawa studio where all but one of the tracks was recorded.

But who is this woman? According to the little biographical data I found on Edwards, she grew up in Ottawa but lived overseas where her dad had various postings for the Canadian diplomatic service. Both her parents are musical, and she studied violin. So she's a natural who also works hard at her craft.

As for Failer, many of the songs were written in a cottage in rural Quebec where she was licking her wounds over a romantic breakup. A number of songs seem to come from that place in the heart, such as "12 Bellevue," in which a last-grasp sexual encounter only reinforces the inevitable. But the most poignant is the ballad "Hockey Skates," a made-in-Canada symbol of innocence lost.

Edwards has the natural outsider's ability to melt into her surroundings while remaining aloof from them. You sense she has the ability to analyze and contextualize even in the midst of intense activity. Like, say, performing, or getting drunk. She's one of those people (and I'm not talking models or supermodels) who looks different in every photograph. On the back cover of the gray-brown tinted CD jacket, she looks like a trashed-out ingenue, too much rouge making her face fade into the tacky curtain behind a radiator. She's holding onto a chair on which she's sitting as if she'd otherwise fall flat on her face, her gaze a thousand miles away. On the inside jacket, she's sitting in the same room, intently playing a guitar. She looks like a boy. On the front cover, someone in the same clothes (presumably her) is leaning against the front bumper of an ancient broken-down Suburban station wagon, out of gas and out of luck on some road in rural Canada.

On both her Web site and the site of Rounder Records, whose Zoe label released Failer in the U.S. earlier this year, there are photo galleries filled with more photos almost eerily dissimilar to one another. In many, she appears drunk or hung over, just like the characters in many of the songs on Failer.

I'm not sure whether the term "failer" is a Canadian variation on "slacker" or whether she's giving herself the evil eye to ward off good luck: For some artists, the fear of failure is surpassed only by the fear of success. For some artists, that is. The question Kathleen Edwards' debut asks, in all sorts of interesting ways, is: does it get any better than this?

by Wayne Robins

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