Humming By The Flowered Vine
Sometimes the finest way to experience something is to do it indirectly. How many people have been introduced to the delightful world of sushi via its sly inclusion at the innocuous safety of the Chinese buffet? If you had dropped them in a true sushi joint, it would be as panic inducing as if they were deposited in a crowded Peking bus terminal. The same theory can apply to country music. Taken full on without initiation, its too much: too syrupy, too corny, too foreign to what you normally take as music. Back in its heyday, Alt-Country was a decent gateway drug, but now, its gone all Alt and has barely a dram of active ingredient left in it. Instead, there are a legion of true-believers that take what is beautiful about classic Country music, Like Paul Burch and the subject of this missive, Laura Cantrell, and make it their own, with enough signs pointing back to where they came from in case you want to visit and sample its wares I will warn you though, a taste for Kitty Wells or Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys is as hard to shake as the flavor of a good spicy eel roll once you've rolled it around on your tongue.
Laura Cantrell is a country performer after my own heart. In fact, there are startling similarities between us: radio DJ, thrift store raider, musician, successful navigator of The Corporate World, and fetching to look at, except that she has, er, been wildly successful and relatively famous in all those endeavors and I am just left being devastatingly handsome. Laura's latest album Humming By the Flowered Vine is perhaps the sweetest thing to come out of the House of Matador, with its dreamlike aura and instrumentation sparse enough to leave some air but intricate enough to fill the room. It reminds me of the more successful albums of Richard Buckner, with whom she shares occasional sidemen from Calexico and like-minded groups and producer JD Foster.
Her vocal style is almost conversational in that she never has to go into diva territory to invade your heart. The opening track "14th Street" sets this Calder-mobile of songs in motion, her voice doubling back on itself in a twinkling orrery of song. The Country aspects enter with a fiddle and a shuffle on "What You Said," her sweet pure voice sounding like the earlier songs by Alison Krauss before she went totally public-radio-bumper-music on us, and it soars in the gentlest way on the chorus of "And Still."
Throughout the album there is a breeze of great 60's country like Loretta Lynn and even George Jones, that "countrypolitan" sound without it coming off like the hayseed adult contemporary dreck that is most female pop country music. And yet its no retro act either - Ms Cantrell takes the music she dearly loves and thoroughly knows (check out the web streams for her Radio Thrift store show on wfmu.org to get some old skule country music learnin') and makes it her own thing transcending the rural country barriers, best exemplified in the chorus of "Letters"
Send me a letter, send it to me when you wanna reach me
Might be California, New York City or Nashville Tennessee
There are also some great points where she stays true to the root in the twangy lap steel bliss of "Wishful Thinking" that would make as much sense on a Loretta Lynn album as it does here, as do the bluegrass tinged numbers "Poor Ellen Smith" and "California Rose" that surround it. The album trails off into the sunset of "Old Downtown" where she compacts her personal and geographic history, from the hills to the city, into a noble ballad about nostalgia and trajectory. Its a beautiful way to end this lovely album.
I had a chance to chat with Ms. Cantrell on the Tv-typewriter recently to ask her a few things about her career, music habits and the album:
Outsideleft: I'm a recovering thrift store record fiend myself, and have been a big fan of your Radio Thrift Store show on WFMU for some time (The Jimmy Martin tribute last moth was wonderful.) I found that the thrift stores and bulk of the music available there (easy listening, jazz, country) had a big effect on my listening habits at the time. I was wondering if the thrift stores informed your music interests, or does your music interests lead your search in the thrifts?
Laura Cantrell: I started out buying vinyl in thrift stores as it was cheaper than going to specialty or collectors shops. You can buy stuff in the thrifts that you're not sure you'll like as the risk is low. But now that I've close to run out of space, I bring home less vinyl. Also, the cd reissue market has finally come around to some of the older music I'm interested in, the swing and jazz and older country stuff that used to be harder to find.
Your album "Humming By the Flowered Vine" has such a beautiful traditional yet otherworldly tone to it. It sounds like its coming from a long lost AM station bouncing off the clouds, except without all the static. How would you describe it?
That's a hard one! I guess I call it a country record myself. But one with some influences outside the strict definition of country music. I also wanted to to sound connected to the older music I love without sounding old timey.
There are a lot of singer-songwriters that are making albums with that
magic glow about them, like yours has (M Ward, Sufjan Stevens, Paul
Burch). Being a DJ and a record collector, how much does "that sound" inform
Well, there is a sort of deep pull that you get from a good record, it doesn't really matter what the overall sound is. If there are songs and some sort of vibe that is consistent, it pulls you in. I've hoped my records could accomplish that.
Besides being America's new country sweetheart, it has been noted in a
number of places that you are also an executive in a large financial company. Which basically makes you one of the more remarkable Renaissance women around. How do you keep those in balance, and do they feed/support each other?
I actually left my former bank position two years ago. I was a VP in an investment firm and it was very tough balancing my music career with a full time job as my music opportunities grew. So, I'm relieved to focus on the music full time. I will say though that having a job for a long time funded my music, made me secure enough to be able to focus my creative energy on music and worked out really well for me until I started to do a lot of traveling.
We'll close with an easy one. This has been a great year for music.
What are the five albums you've heard this year that blew your socks off?
Robbie Fulks - "Georgia Hard"
Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell - "Begonias"
Elizabeth McQueen & The Firebrands - "Happy Doing What We're Doing"
Richard Buckner - "Dents & Shells "
Jesse Sykes - "Oh My Girl"
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com