Music

Laura Cantrell: Humming by the Flowered Vine

Michael Franco

Cantrell is only three albums into her career, but she's fast becoming an underground country icon. This album shows why she's the rightful heiress to Lucinda Williams.


Laura Cantrell

Humming by the Flowered Vine

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2005-06-21
UK Release Date: 2005-06-20
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Laura Cantrell's slow rise to the top of the country underground is a story of contradictions, and quickly becoming the stuff of legends. Born and raised in the Mecca of country music -- Nashville -- she took a reverse pilgrimage and moved to New York City to attend college. Oddly enough, it was there that Cantrell found an outlet to explore country music as host of "Tennessee Border", a music program on college radio station WKCR. Taking the normal route of aspiring singer/songwriters, she performed at local coffeehouses, and when she realized that playing for latte-sipping college students doesn't pay so well, she took the not-so-normal route of getting a position as VP of a Wall Street bank. Most dreamy-eyed guitar strummers would have stopped here, content to live a posh existence and play the occasional show for an adoring local following. Not Cantrell. She pushed onward, releasing her debut album, Not the Trembling Kind, in 2000.

From here, the story gets really interesting, if not unbelievable. Hearing the album, iconic BBC DJ John Peel declared the album was his "favourite record of the last 10 years and possibly [his] life". After recording five Peel Sessions, Cantrell released her follow up, 2002's When the Roses Bloom Again, and after hearing the album, Elvis Costello asked Cantrell to open 17 shows on his U.S. tour. This led to appearances at some of the most holy venues (including the Grand Ole Opry), television performances, and tours with revered artists like Joan Baez and Ralph Stanley. As if that's not enough, Cantrell has remained the host of "Radio Thrift Shop", an underground musical show with a fanatically-devoted audience, on freeform radio station WFMU. How's that for following your dreams?

This brings us to the present, where Cantrell's career continues to breed fortunate contradictions, most notably her signing with Matador -- a label more known for rock acts like Guided by Voices, Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, and Cat Power than country chanteuses. Still, the match is perfect, seeing that Matador is known for signing artists devoted to their art rather than the charts. Humming by the Flowered Vine, Cantrell's latest release, is another brilliant album that showcases the singer's songwriting gifts and scholarly knowledge of old-school country. With this album, she seals her reputation as country's unofficial archive keeper, a woman devoted to preserving the roots of roots music.

Indeed, Cantrell has earned as much praise for her gift of unknown country gems and recording them as for her amazing voice. Flowered Vine features five original songs and five songs that were written by other artists. If there's a common theme to be found among these songs, it's longing -- whether for love or home. "14th Street" for example, sees the narrator wanting to approach a person on the street but eventually settling for daydreaming: "I see you walking up 14th Street / And you don't know / I'm following behind you / Counting my steps as I go / Maybe 10 steps or 12 / Divide us in two..." While the song is essentially country, it possesses a '60s pop feel, with angelic backup vocals that float above a jaunty piano. Several of the songs, such as "Khaki and Corduroy", and "Letters", deal with leaving home, only to yearn for its comforts. The former, written by Cantrell about her move to New York, is a collection of images that reminds the narrator of a distant home: "Sometimes I see their faces / In the most unlikely places." With claviola, piano, and brushed drums, it's more old-school jazz than old-school country, but it's a stunning song nonetheless. "Letters" is an old Lucinda Williams song, and Cantrell's band captures the thick, humid groove of vintage Lucinda. The lyrics are also classic Williams, referencing numerous cities and depicting unrequited desire.

Other songs are more traditional in approach. "California Rose" is Cantrell's homage to Rose Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, a Depression-era act. Featuring fast fingerpicking and a deep, bouncing bass line, the song depicts the struggles of Maddox to find success outside of her family, but only finding the roadblocks of gender roles. Cantrell gives a classic country performance, full of charm and twang. "Poor Ellen Smith" is a song discovered by Ethel Park Richardson and published in her 1927 book American Mountain Songs. While recording the album, Cantrell discovered that Richardson was her great, great aunt and decided to record the song, which is a traditional murder ballad. Cantrell's band gives it the authentic treatment, complete with mandolin and fiddle.

With Humming by the Flowered Vine, Cantrell has proven she's the rightful heiress to Lucinda Williams. Like Williams, Cantrell writes beautifully stark songs that find the poetry in simple images, songs that reveal the profound revelations in everyday life. Moreover, she not only performs covers, but finds songs that reflect the heritage of traditional American music. If you want a brief, impassioned synopsis of country's history, this is it. Just when alt-country began limping on clichéd legs, we have an album that shows what roots music is really about -- knowledge, passion, and talent.

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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