When Edith Frost sent her demo to Chicago’s infamous indie outlet Drag City she impulsively included a fanatical letter describing her affection for one of the label’s mainstays, Will Oldham’s Palace. While it might embarrass her now, thank goodness for the rest of us that her enthusiasm paid off-for the marriage of Frost’s sturdy yet understated style with the local postrock mafia is a happy one indeed.
Her first album, Calling Across Time featured backup from Gastr del Sol’s David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke. While these names may carry weight only in rarefied circles, the subsequent collaboration on Telescopic with Royal Trux’s “Adam and Eve” (Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema) established Edith’s place among a group of musicians interested not only in preserving what was authentic and yearning in traditional rock and country music, but in pushing it towards new horizons. On Wonder Wonder friends from both previous albums have come together under the watchful eye of the ArchEngineer, Steve Albini.
Fans of Calling Across Time were perhaps troubled by Telescopic‘s fuzz and furor. Wonder Wonder is in some ways a return to the spare melancholy of Calling Across Time, but it is smarter, wiser, and at times more upbeat. The arrangements are complex, though not as thickly layered as on Telescopic. Mr. Albini has done a wonderful job foregrounding Edith’s alternately rich and wistful voice—though as we’ve come to expect from him, every tap on the snare stands out in crisp relief. Her simple guitar, often just strumming the traditional country “one and two and THREE and four” pattern, serves as a delicate but indestructible backbone over which are strung haunting strains of fiddle (almost never a wash of strings), pedal steel, piano and Melloton.
Her lyrics unflinchingly and simply confront the truth of a world in which love and place and home and memory are uncertain but irreducible. Of her recent move to Chicago she sings “Every time I close my eyes I dream of someone in Texas / And every stripmall on the highway reminds me of my home” over a snappy, almost marching beat, ascending piano chords, and sparse strings. I might be getting a little lit-crity here, but there’s something so absolutely poignant, so empty and haunting, about the stripmall. In that one unadorned phrase she’s managed to express both the utterly human longing for home but also its conflict with modern shiftlessness and homogenization.
Did I mention that this song, “Cars and Parties”, is also incredibly catchy? So is the title track, “Wonder Wonder”, in which Edith pulls out her dark and mellow lower register to muse “I don’t know why I’m staying with you / If everything they’re saying is true,” then launches into a soaring bridge: “Cos always my wandering mind / Takes me right down to the bottom of the basement.” And a little solo on the clarinet maybe? (curse those liner notes, and their failure to enumerate all the instruments used!), just absolutely silly, almost vaudeville. It’s just so much fun without disturbing the aesthetic. To my mind this can only speak to considerable artistic growth, even to a sort of courage. It isn’t all twang and giggle, though. “Can you hear my heart? / Do you understand? / Are these letters only falling from my hand?” This over a simple strum with occasional piano and pedal steel accents. It is spare and honest and absolutely devastating. I don’t know what else to say about it.
Except that Wonder Wonder is, quite simply, a beautiful album.