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
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."
begins with the two near-perfect songs that have
quickly made Edwards an alt-rock radio heroine. In "Six O'Clock News," the
is on a boyfriend, Peter, who's snapped, flashed a gun, perhaps taken
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
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
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
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
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
, 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,
like the characters in many of the songs on Failer.
I'm not sure whether the term "failer" is a Canadian variation on "slacker"
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?