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The Air up There

Kathleen Edwards
Failer (Rounder)

It’s an old joke that Canadians do Americana better than most—from Neil Young to the Band to Blue Rodeo and beyond—but there’s often something intangibly tragic and bruised in the way they go about it. You can certainly feel it in Neil Young’s ungodly vocal timbre or in the torch twang of Blue Rodeo, whose lyrics often find them shell-shocked and trying to ponder their way out of heartache across hard, vast Lake Ontario.

Even the (four-fifths Canadian) Band’s deft, rollicking musicianship seemed a thin cover of bluster for the deep-seated tragedy lurking in Richard Manuel’s voice. (Just as, to paraphrase writer Barney Hoskins, their folksy farm-boy image was a red herring for the rock-star bullshit that would eventually hobble the group.) And the Cowboy Junkies haven’t even been mentioned yet.

This leads us to latest Canadian export Kathleen Edwards, who has weighed in with what will probably end up being one of the finest roots-rock albums of 2003. And sure enough, even in its brightest moment, it carries significant emotional weight; hers is a voice that wants to sing like a clarion, but there’s something (winter, heartbreak, bitterness) tugging it down around the edges. Maybe this is the Northern blues.

Lazy comparisons to Lucinda Williams have been dogging Edwards, but Edwards’ is a young woman’s muse and Williams has seemed like an old soul since she first emerged in the late ’70s (and Williams’ work is as distinctly Southern as William Faulkner). Neil Young’s influence is apparent here, particularly on “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like,” but overall Edwards is very much her own woman.

What the listener is left with, then, is a batch of gorgeous, earthy tunes with their heart in their throat (fleshed out by strong production and a great roots-rock band). And listening to shell-shocked, pensive beauties like “Lone Wolf” or “Hockey Skates,” it’s hard not to ponder the dimensions of the literal and figurative coldness that these creative fires were stoked against.

—Erik Hage

Various artists
Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello (Glurp)

Message to indie-label music acts: Just because you like the song doesn’t mean we need to hear your version of it. That excellent bit of advice comes to the fore with so-called tribute albums. Almost You presents 14 acts performing Elvis Costello songs, nearly all of which hew closely to Costello’s original template. In fact, most of them succeed by dint of vigor rather than reinvention. Fastball’s “Busy Bodies,” Matt Pond Pa’s “Green Shirt” and the Deathray Davies’ “Men Called Uncle” are three such solid examples. Jon Auer’s version of “Beyond Belief” sheds the original lavish arrangement, focusing on the underlying strength of the song. However, a few others attempting such streamlining don’t have lead singers with sufficient dynamics and confidence to keep them from falling into forced caricatures or inconsequential coasting (such as “Riot Act” by Okkervil Rover, “Sleep of the Just” by Mendoza Line, and “Indoor Fireworks” by Kev Russell’s Junker). One of Costello’s finest numbers is the undercelebrated “Blue Chair.” Here Li’l Cap’n Travis tosses its subtle but unrelenting intensity out the window, leaving a woozy barroom stagger in its stead—not a good trade. The most frustrating selection is “Alison,” which would be intriguing to hear performed by Vic Chesnutt. Unfortunately he shares the spotlight with Jack Logan and Mr. and Mrs. Keneipp, foolishly passing the lyrical narrative around like a hot potato.

Bottom line: There are some charms to be found on this disc, but it serves mostly as a reminder of how great the original recordings are.

—David Greenberger

Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán
Mambo Sinuendo (Nonesuch/Perro Verde)

Ry Cooder, who helped shepherd the Buena Vista Social Club toward international stardom, steps out in far more modern style in this stunning collaboration with guitarist Manuel Galbán—arranger for Los Zafiros, an idiosyncratic Cuban doo-wop group of such prowess they wowed the Beatles. Backed by Jim Keltner and Cooder’s son Joachim on drums, various Buena Vistans, folkloric Bata percussionists and occasional, luscious singing, Cooder and Galbán concoct a new musical hybrid that swings and twangs and intoxicates. “Drume Negrita” launches the 12 tunes in shadowy, mysterious style. “Monte Adentro,” a spirited, swirling mambo, follows. The tracks tumble, twitch, and always seduce. They include a salacious take on Perez Prado’s “Patricia,” the spirited cha-cha “Caballo Viejo,” the determined title track (featuring Herb Alpert’s burnished trumpet), and Galbán’s “Bolero Sonambulo,” an otherworldly, deeply bawdy foray whose tempo and approach sum up the comfortably surreal, unique atmosphere of this work. You might hear shades of ? and the Mysterians, smears of Tex-Mex, a lot of Duane Eddy, some Santo & Johnny (S&J’s guitar swoon “Sleep Walk” messed with a lot of teen minds at about the same time Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” was a hit). You’ll surely hear originality. The closest Norteamericano CD relative is Los Lobos’ Kiko, which, like Mambo Sinuendo, probes musical connections to come up with magic. Mambo Sinuendo is the sound of sensuality, courtesy of an electric-guitar band so far south of the creative border they’ve devised their own musical country.

—Carlo Wolff

John Fahey
Red Cross (Revenant)

John Fahey completed this, his final album, just a few months before his death in 2001. Much like Fahey himself, Red Cross (which was released by the label he started in the ’90s) is at once beautifully designed and stubbornly unique in its sizing; the package stands three-quarters of an inch taller than most CDs. Musically, the album touches on most of the major musical themes of his career, from crystalline slices of traditional Americana (Irving Berlin’s “Remember” and Gershwin’s “Summertime”) to rich, resonant and spiritually compelling originals like “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six Blues.” Fahey steps easily between fingerpicked acoustic purity and sonic experimentation. The accompanying booklet offers an essay by Glenn Jones that succeeds in giving context to Fahey’s often personally troubled and publicly confused final dozen or so years. Fahey could frustrate his friends and fans, but all in service to his art. Red Cross is a perfect final chapter.

—D.G.


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