Kathleen Edwards picks up right where she left off, offering up an album that sometimes drags, but redeems itself with smart lyrics and a winning formula with a track record.
It's hard to feel too sorry for Kathleen Edwards. After all, her 2003 debut album, Failer, earned her nearly unanimous praise in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New York Times, and garnered comparisons to some of the big mamas of the alt-country game. She was officially crowned The Next Big Thing when storytellers "One More Song the Radio Won't Like" and "Six O'Clock News" moved from indie radio collections to the listening stations at Tower Records, all at an age when most of us are still nursing undeclared majors and writing poems about navel gazing. Not such a bad gig, all in all.
But as everyone who's ever watched even one episode of Behind the Music can tell you, the pressure to follow up such critically successful albums can be enormous. More than one up-and-comer has succumbed to the music industry machine, sliding from "Best New Artist" to "Where Are They Now" in the fickle span of a single Record Release Tuesday. But not Kathleen Edwards. She simply grabbed her guitar and picked up exactly where Failer left off, releasing Back to Me and extending a well-toned middle finger in the general direction of the infamous "sophomore slump".
This technique is both good and bad for Edwards. On the plus side, it all but guarantees that everyone who swooned over Failer is going to read Back to Me as the second coming. And rightfully so. All the same gritty faces, predictable heartbreaks, and salt-of-the-earth character building that was the mainstay of Edwards' debut is front and center in her second effort as well, to an equal if not greater degree. The gravel roads still crunch, the men still disappoint, and Edwards' redeeming voice is as reliable as a last call fist fight.
But while there is something to be said for the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory of songwriting, the formula highlights a nearly imperceptible musical growth that smacks of a girl resting on her critical laurels, and this is where Edwards gets herself into a bit of trouble. It's not that Back to Me is an unsatisfying listen; quite to the contrary, there are some smashingly rewarding moments on this release. It's just that if you have heard Failer, you're basically heard Back to Me already. Add to that Edwards' fairly limited vocal stylings and somewhat predictable musical arrangements, and you'd be tempted to think that Back to Me was swilling in quick sand.
You'd be wrong. And the reason you'd be wrong is because Kathleen Edwards has a knack for saving her own ass at the most opportune of moments, with her signature one-two lyrical punch. In "What Are You Waiting For", Edwards channels a most precocious Lucinda Williams by singing "You say you like me in your memory / You've got to be fucking kidding me." A master of bitchy deceit, Edwards often sounds a lot sweeter than she really is, proving what any true emotional chameleon already knows: there's just no substitute for the element of surprise when you're trying to put a giant pin prick in some jerk's high-floating balloon. And in "Independent Thief", Edwards is a skillful enough songwriter to plug an otherwise sinking ship with the kind of lyrical maneuvers that manage to be tongue-in-cheek and devastatingly sincere at the same time: when she claims to be "this city's sweet holy thunder", I know I, for one, believe her.
Other stand-out tracks include "Summerlong", the catchiest ode to fair weather romance since John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John risked reputation and venereal disease to sing "Summer Lovin'" in Grease, and "Away", a gorgeous song that works precisely for its stripped down simplicity and lack of fancy production; Eric Heywood's moaning pedal steel is every bit as haunting as Edwards' vocal imperfections when she sings, "memory is a terrible thing / when you use it right." But clearly, the real zinger of Back to Me is its title track, a shit-kickin', boot-stompin' declaration of independence that's not quite as sultry as Lucinda Williams and not quite as vindictive as fellow Canadian Alanis Morrisette, but a hell of a lot more fun than both of 'em. It's enough to make you forgive the lack of trajectory from which the album as a whole suffers, ask the bartender for a fresh bowl of peanuts, and buy a pitcher for the next sorry S.O.B. who happens onto the stool next to you.
Ultimately, Back to Me is a study in raw talent and potential. But it's also a passport to bigger and better things: now that she's conquered the dreaded follow-up album, Edwards has a free pass to play a little bit fast and loose with her songwriting technique, and maybe even try to expand her vocal performance. If she can convince herself that molds, like southern hearts, really were made to be broken, she just might cement a place for herself among the most talented of young roots-rock musicians. And in the meantime, well, if the boot fits...