[26 May 2008]
Laura Cantrell’s recent entry into the joys of motherhood inspired this travel-themed EP. Unaccustomed as a working and touring musician to spending so much time at home, Cantrell naturally found herself drawn to the titular trains, boats, and planes in this set of covers, from Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” to New Order’s “Love Vigilantes”. With gas prices licking at four bucks a gallon this summer, the Internet-only Trains and Boats and Planes is a welcome bit of escapism for all of us, with the only regret being its brevity. Although the release features nine tracks, three of those have been previously released. The remaining six demonstrate Cantrell’s sharp skills as an interpreter of songs from various styles and eras.
Opening with Burt Bacharach’s “Trains and Boats and Planes”, Cantrell immediately establishes the simple, winning formula employed throughout: no flash, no quirky stab at deconstruction or reinvention, just a solid country arrangement led by the singer’s clear, calm voice. Cantrell’s lack of vocal or instrumental histrionics don’t mean a lack of power, however. As her voice wends through a wistful haze of Cajun accordion, mandolin, and guitar, she cuts through to the emotional truth of the lyrics while staying as far away from overwrought as possible. How refreshing to hear a singer trust her material enough not to steamroll it, to come down so heavy that the audience is only a witness rather than a participant. Cantrell’s work is so inviting because her believability allows listeners imaginative space.
The most well-known cut on the EP, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, has been so hammed up in its 30-year existence, even by Lightfoot himself, that to strip it of nostalgia and make it new again is a considerable challenge. Though not the project’s strongest cut, Cantrell’s version at least comes close. With her band blustering through the familiar, repetitive chords like a less beardy Magnolia Electric Co., she brings new attention and focus to the story of the 1975 disaster with a voice as brisk as the lyrics’ autumn winds. Similarly, she approaches New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” in a way that respects the original’s integrity while fitting it seamlessly with the rest of the material. Cantrell seems particularly adept at songs that communicate loss, heartbreak, and tragedy, because of the steadiness and placidity of her voice and style.
As she did with John Prine’s “Sam Stone” (for MoveOn.org’s Future Soundtrack for America compilation), Cantrell brings empathy and vulnerability to a soldier’s story, which is no easy feat. A lesser artist could take the loaded sentiments expressed in “Love Vigilantes” as a cue for irony or callow over-politicization. Although the song offers plenty of room for those interpretations, Cantrell chooses sincerity, focusing on the soldier’s lines “I want to see my family / My wife and child / Waiting for me” as the heart of the song. The juxtaposition of that desire with the audience’s understanding that such a happy resolution may not be likely is the wellspring for any emotional or intellectual reaction to the circumstances of war, duty, and patriotism on behalf of the listener. By playing it straight, Cantrell does credit to the complexity of the song and its concerns. And happily, that’s something it seems she can’t help but do with whatever she chooses to sing.