- - Monday, January 16, 2012

Voyageur

Kathleen Edwards

MapleMusicRecordings

★★★

There are songwriters who get the attention they deserve, and then there are people like Kathleen Edwards, the perennially overlooked siren responsible for some of the best Americana songs of the 21st century.

On “Voyageur,” Miss Edwards‘ first album in four years, she continues gliding across folk, country and pop/rock like some sort of ethereal ghost, haunting each genre with equal force. Her brand of multidimensional Americana isn’t rough and ragged like those of her male counterparts, but polished and smooth, with rounded edges instead of sharp corners. When Miss Edwards sings, you lean forward and listen, worried that you’ll miss the nuances.

Miss Edwards‘ voice isn’t classically pretty. There is a rural ruggedness to her low notes and a gauzy breathiness to the high parts. Even so, it’s a killer instrument, evocative of the outdoorsy images and heartbroken lyrics that fill her songs.

Also filling the nooks and crannies of “Voyageur” is Justin Vernon, known to most indie-folk fans as Bon Iver. He is Miss Edwards‘ touring partner and rumored boyfriend, but he also is her producer, responsible for saturating her songs with the same sort of textured, autumnal gloss that fills his own records. There is a sense of fall, of mild days followed by cold evenings, of leaves turning bright colors before drifting to the ground. It’s a mood that suits Miss Edwards‘ songs perfectly.

She sings some of those songs directly to Mr. Vernon. “Out of the cameras and lights, you’re a chameleon,” she croons during “Chameleon/Celebrity,” a song about building a relationship in the public eye. She focuses more of her time on past loves, though, particularly her five-year marriage to Canadian guitarist Colin Cripps.

“Pink Champagne” examines their failed union, using the couple’s wedding day as the focal point. “Looking back, it was a bad idea,” she acknowledges in her plain-spoken tone. Miss Edwards has always gotten a lot of mileage out of melancholia, and there is plenty of heart-wrenching stuff here.

“Voyageur” isn’t a breakup album, though. Maybe it’s the presence of Mr. Vernon, who brings occasional moments of sunshine to the album’s Americana haze and gives Miss Edwards something positive to sing about. Or maybe it’s the fact that Miss Edwards has never been a one-trick pony. She looks beyond the stock images used by sad-sack alt.country songwriters - the empty whiskey bottles, the vacant beds, the late-night bars - and writes about something more subtle.

“My love is a stockpile of broken wills,” she sings during “Change the Sheets,” “like Santa Fe, margaritas and sleeping pills.” Few people would be able to deliver that kind of line without it sounding clunky or bookish. Miss Edwards pulls it off.

She gets a little help from her friends, of course. Norah Jones stops by for a cameo appearance, as do John Roderick, Megafaun’s Phil Cook and other indie-rock heavyweights. Bon Iver’s influence is everywhere, too.

This is the Kathleen Edwards’ show, though, and every minute is riveting.

A case of nerves

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