Country music – love it or hate it, it is music from the eternal, which you cannot deny. True, it has had a bad press of simple hick concerns and Kenny Rogers…or lest we forget Billy �The Devil’ Ray Cyrus. But for the most part they are universal themes: the union of man and the earth, the crop and nature, the heart and the head, trust and deception in love, and the toil between the two.
Whether it be the preacher Johnny Cash, the spiritual angelics of Emmylou Harris, the trailer heroine-isms of Dolly Parton , the contemporary kooks of Gillian Welch or Lucinda Williams it prevails beyond mere fashion to something more fulfilling than an “achy, breaky heart”.
So what’s so special about Laura Cantrell to have the departed guru John Peel proclaim one of her previous albums as “my favourite record of the last ten years, and possibly my life”? The answer lies in the disarming simplicity of songwriting, and universal themes of heartbreak from an affecting soul. Coming with a high pedigree, Nashville-born, New York-living, this, her first major label debut continues her trajectory of gentle folk/country ballads as crisp and fresh as a sky full of gingham with none of the tweeness or retro qualities. Cantrell serves up contemporary country with no strut and bluster.
Opener 14th Street sets the tone with its sweet tale of unrequited love/ mild stalker ode from a female perspective that is actually about the divide between uptown and downtown New York. True there is a little more depth in instrumentation to these tunes than on previous outings, with a sweeping fiddle, heart-plucked mandolin, oboe and piano adding a rich colour backing to the crystal-clear sweetheart of the rodeo voice of Cantrell.
If any comparisons were to be made it would be to the equally sweet voice of Nanci Griffith, or a more chipper Cowboy Junkies. This collection seamlessly blends Cantrell’s own songs with some well-chosen if somewhat obscure covers (breathing contemporary vitality into them, including Lucinda Williams’ own brooding Letters) to the detriment of neither.
Elsewhere, California Rose tells of a fading dreams to a rollicking rhythm that is positively joyous. Bagsy she covers the entire Joy Division back catalogue! Similarly, Wishful Thinking rolls along on a sprightly fiddle and pedal steel guitar with sweet harmonies pulling every drop of sorrow and celebration mix together in a happy/sad cocktail that goes down easy.
Poor Ellen Smith conjures up gothic Appalachian death country and makes it sound like a breeze. But it on the more experimental tracks that Cantrell shines through; the spectral ambience of Bees, the simple elegance of Khaki and Corduroy and the plaintive And Still.
Possibly not the candidate for the ‘favourite album of your life’ but a breezy gust to blow away those dusty country preconceptions. If this is the first fruits of her first major outing, Laura Cantrell can cover her world in gingham should she so choose, knowing there will be an audience hungry to follow her voice through any number of variations from the norm.