[3 March 2014]
The venerable Laura Cantrell earned her way into My Personal Music Hall of Fame back in 1992 with her guest vocal on They Might Be Giants’ single “The Guitar”—a full eight years before her first LP, Not the Tremblin’ Kind. But that’s not why you’re here, is it?
Ever since, she’s been making consistently well-received Americana country music (she’s got a 78 average on MetaCritic). If you’re the sort of person who scoffs at Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood for not making real country music, stay tuned, because Cantrell’s No Way There from Here is ready to cure what ails you. No Way There from Here blends a truly perfect Americana vocal, utterly brilliant recording quality, and an affectionate blend of Americana, country, and indie pop. The result is the strongest country record since last year’s favorite Same Trailer, Different Park by Kacey Musgraves.
The album’s very first moments endear you to it instantly. Cantrell’s girlish, easy-going vocal sounds freakishly like Doris Day. Like, double-take-inducingly similar, especially on the whimsical opener “All The Girls Are Complicated”. Her voice is effervescent. Even when she mourns on some of the ballads, her singing is never dreary, always hopeful and immensely pleasant.
The recording quality is stunning. There’s a serious warmth to everything, and the way the guitars were mic’d in the studio is nothing short of masterful. Listen closely to the slide guitar on “Someday Sparrow” for the perfect mix of the actual strumming and picking with just a hint of noise from the slide along the neck, the scratchy texture of glass deftly slipping on and off the strings. It’s an acoustic audiophile’s dream come true. Soloing instruments seem to physically move nearer to you, then back away for Cantrell to step back up to the microphone.
So many styles are represented here. Some songs sound like classic, down-home country. Others are folk-inspired pop. The record slowly morphs the two across its entire runtime, kaleidoscoping from one permutation of “country” music into another. A banjo shows up, sings its twangy song, then leaves in time for a lightly overdriven guitar to take its place. The rhythm section seems to fade from upright bass and a brushed snare to a full kit and electric bass and back again. Every type of stringed instrument can be heard—electric guitar, acoustic, slide guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, bass, banjo, mandolin—each playing its part at the right time.
At barely over 38 minutes, No Way There from Here is surprisingly brief for a 12-track record. Herein lies what makes this record truly great: its pacing. Those short songs keep the pace brisk, moving from theme to theme quickly, one never outstaying its welcome. The listener is forced to acknowledge just how diverse this record is. “Driving Down Your Street” is pure bliss, happy reminiscing cut-time folk. Four songs later, “Washday Blues” is a slow-motion gut punch, leaving you aching from its story of moving on—or, at least, trying to. It only takes Cantrell about three minutes on average to make her point, and boy does she make it.
Yet I can’t seem to quit listening to No Way There from Here without once more returning to that joyful opener “All The Girls Are Complicated”. It’s stuffed to the gills with sound—fuzzy guitars, brass instruments, clarinet, double-tracked vocals—but never once feels overwhelming. It’s just fun.
In fact, that’s a great way to describe the record as a whole. No Way There from Here is packed to bursting with influences from country to pop, tons of different instruments, happy songs, sad songs, fast songs, slow songs—but each in such a measure as to blend to near perfection.