Roots rockers rejoice! After touring the world with everyone from My Morning Jacket to John Mayer, Kathleen Edwards is back with her first album in three years and some of her strongest work to date. Somehow, she’s managed to improve on her last record, the universally adored Back to Me , thanks to progressively mature songwriting, a stellar backing band, and solid production (Edwards co-produced the album with Jim Scott, who also worked on Back to Me). Despite the wintry weather, Asking for Flowers will make you want to put the windows down and the volume up on your morning drive.
Unlike her previous records, Asking for Flowers opens with a ballad, complete with mopey backing piano that would be better served on an equally mopey Coldplay song. But what “Buffalo” lacks in rafter-rattling, tough-girl swagger, it makes up in solid songwriting and vocals. The lush background instrumentals are an interesting change of pace from Edwards’ usual stripped-down style, but “Buffalo” just isn’t up to the caliber of the rest of the album’s tracks.
Despite its somewhat lackluster beginning, the album quickly picks up speed. “The Cheapest Key”, the album’s first single, sees Edwards back to her Tom Petty-influenced, guitar and harmonica roots as she snarls a soon to be ex’s sins in alphabetical order: “B is for bullshit and you fed me some.” The album’s title track features another one of the no-good men that are the keystone of several tracks from earlier albums: “Asking for flowers is like asking you to be nice.” Ouch.
“Alicia Ross” is a powerful song about a young woman who was murdered by her neighbor. Written in Ross’s voice, Edwards’ lyrics are absolutely heart-wrenching: “He pulled me so hard off my very own back door steps / And he laid me in his garden / All the years I’ve watched him tend.” Reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, another stark, ripped-from-the-headlines murder ballad, though from the perspective of the killer, not the victim, “Alicia Ross” is quite possibly the strongest (and saddest) song Edwards has ever written. All royalties from the song will be donated to Project Canoe, a charity founded by Ross’ parents that aims to help at-risk teens, so if for some unknown reason you decide to forgo buying the entire album in favor of cherry-picking a couple tracks from iTunes, make sure this is one of them.
The album’s catchiest song is “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”, a clever, mid-tempo track featuring Greg Leisz (Wilco, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) on pedal steel. The song also showcases Edwards’ dry Canadian wit as she sings, “You’re cool and cred like Fogerty / I’m Elvis Presley in the ’70s.” Not to reinforce stereotypes about our neighbors to the north, but there’s even a hockey analogy: “You’re the Great One / I’m Marty McSorley.” Who can resist a Wayne Gretzky reference?
On a more serious note, socially conscious songs abound on Asking for Flowers. “Oil Man’s War”, a song ostensibly set in the Vietnam Era, can easily be applied to current geopolitical happenings; the song’s focus on war’s ramifications on a personal level make “Oil Man’s War” far more meaningful and poignant than most of the other protest songs floating around out there. Also, it rocks, which is always a plus. “Oh Canada” might just be the angriest song Edwards has ever written, and considering the angry songs that pepper her first two records, that’s really saying something. The track covers a variety of topics from racism perpetuated by the media (“There are no headlines / When a black girl dies”) to suburbia’s willful ignorance of life outside the McMansion (“In the valley below / There’s crack and young girls / You don’t have to believe / What stays out of your world”).
There’s no doubt in my mind that Kathleen Edwards is the next Lucinda Williams, right down to the barebones vocals and increasingly politically aware songwriting. If Edwards can write and release three incredible records before she turns 30, just imagine what she’ll be doing 20 years from now. I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.