On this debut album, the 24-year-old Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards sounds eerily, even suspiciously, like Lucinda Williams. According to her press kit, she's a diplomat's daughter who switched from classical violin to alt-country after discovering Whiskeytown, but it's not former Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams who has inspired this familiar-sounding marble-mouthed drawl, especially when bearing down on words such as "heart," "mouth," and "face." It's his Lost Highway labelmate Williams. So complete is Edwards' mastery of Williams' trademark vocal mannerisms that it's sort of embarrassing on first listen. When Edwards sings "and everything" at the end of a line on "One More Song the Radio Won't Like," the first thing that comes to mind is Williams' devastating delivery of the same evocative, open-ended phrase on Car Wheels On a Gravel Road's "Right in Time."
And it isn't just Williams' vocal style that Edwards evokes. She also nails the hard-drinking, reckless, and emotionally raw mood, the combination of vulnerability and wry self-loathing (just look at the album title) that sometimes colors Williams' music. On "One More Song the Radio Won't Like," Edwards muses that "No one likes a girl who won't sober up," while on "Hockey Skates" she confronts a lover with "Do you think your boys' club will crumble/Just because of a loud-mouthed girl?"
But further listening reveals something more than just an ace mimic. Edwards is a compelling artist and sharp songwriter in her own right. She flashes a personality more individual than the standard alt-country cutout: The imagery on "Hockey Skates" is clearly her own, while on "Westby," a quick-and-dirty narrative about a motel rendezvous with an older man in which Edwards flips through the cable after he passes out, she sounds her age (or a few years younger) in a way that you can't imagine Williams ever has. And she shows her songwriting fangs on the chorus, observing with pointed nonchalance, "And if you weren't so old I'd probably keep you/If you weren't so old I'd tell my friends," before slowing down for the deadpan punchline: "But I don't think your wife would like my friends."
But best of all may be the lead cut, "Six O'Clock News," in which Edwards treads dangerous ground. Looking for an interesting way into one of those increasingly familiar Dog Day Afternoon-style scenarios (think Columbine but a few notches less intense), Edwards manages to avoid awkwardness in a song more writerly and topical than anything else on the album. Imagining the helpless lover of someone at the center of a bad situation, the song's accumulated detail evokes Nebraska-era Springsteen more than Williams, and Edwards scores a knockout with a glancing blow when her narrator envisions an escape hatch not likely to materialize: "Peter, sweet baby, there's just something that I gotta say to you/Gonna have your baby this coming June/We could get a little place down by Gilmour Park/You could do a little time and save my broken heart."
-- Chris Herrington
Television stardom rarely translates from the tube to the turntable. For every success like the Monkees, there are scores of embarrassing, nearly forgotten also-rans like Rick Springfield, Don Johnson, and -- inevitably -- Kelly Clarkson. Does anyone remember former Young and the Restless heartthrob and "Rock On" singer Michael Damien? Can you sing the chorus to the Heights' big hit, "How Do You Talk to an Angel?"
With the fleeting nature of crossover celebrity in mind, it's surprising how good Kelly Osbourne's debut album, Shut Up, is. The reality-TV star's debut has the accessible feel of the best pop-punk, equal parts Avril Lavigne (who has better hooks) and Sum 41 (who have more fun). The title track stands out as a radio-ready single, and "Coolhead" cries out for a montage in some unfilmed teen movie. Unfortunately, too many of the other overproduced songs sound indistinguishable from one another, making Osbourne sound like so many other post-Britney girl rockers.
Shut Up is a fine effort, but it's not quite good enough to launch a career as anything other than Ozzy's daughter, the Princess of Darkness. It desperately wants to be a real rock album, but it will inevitably be filed under pop curiosity -- neither good nor embarrassing enough to be memorable.
Mama Says I'm Crazy
Mississippi Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods
Let's put it this way: Without Fred McDowell there would probably be no Fat Possum or any current interest in what has become known in recent years as North Mississippi hill-country blues. McDowell was the prototype for this style of bottleneck guitar blues that is played in an open-chord country tuning. Fat Possum's Matthew Johnson turned this unadorned and powerful music into a signature record-label sound and identity decades after McDowell's death. And Johnson's most bankable artists, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, great as they are/were, never really made it to the same league as McDowell. He could switch from quiet acoustic blues to devastating electric boogie depending on the recording date or live gig.
And the late Johnny Woods, McDowell's favorite harmonica player, could have given the hard-drinking, liver-damaged Fat Possum artist roster a run for their money in a moonshine-swilling contest. I once played a benefit gig with a very drunk Woods during the summer of 1979 in Little Rock. (As I recall, the benefit had something to do with a group home for the profoundly retarded, and most of the home's inhabitants seemed to be in attendance that day. They enjoyed dancing to our music in a large circle while holding hands, but that's another story.)
Woods wobbled in front of me, staring blankly into my eyes and furiously blowing harp as if trying to tell me something. (That my drumming sucked?) I never did understand what Woods was trying to communicate to me during that performance since he was too intoxicated to speak afterward. But I'll always remember looking into those yellow, bloodshot orbs of his and noting that nobody seemed to be home. He looked drunk and pitiful that day (so did I, for that matter), but he played and sounded great.
And he sounds that way on this very casual, home recording session taped by George Mitchell in North Mississippi in 1967. It's not the same caliber as McDowell's 1969 classic I Do Not Play No Rock and Roll, but it's a great chronicle of how two masters made music effortlessly and intuitively. Yeah, "Shake 'Em On Down" is included here, but it was never a cliché when McDowell played it.
Fat Possum is to be commended for uncharacteristic restraint in not making references to "boozy bluesmen" in their liner notes or promo material. Nice one, Matthew. -- Ross Johnson