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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur: B+

As I’ve entered my third year of listening feverishly to the music of the 2010’s, I’ve noticed a few patterns. First, to no one’s surprise, the big tentpole releases come out in late June through July. An enormous dump of albums comes in the second week of September. Without fail, some of the year’s heaviest critical hitters come out in time to fudge with music critics’ year-end lists, Rihanna albums only come out in November for some reason, nobody gives a shit about April, and, in the second week of January, a seasoned alt-country veteran releases a hearty collection of soul-melters. In 2010 that veteran was Laura Veirs, in 2011 it was Over the Rhine and this year it’s Kathleen Edwards.

A part of me wants to dismiss Voyageur based on the law of diminishing returns. But that’s unfair, because I’m discrediting Edwards’ work for something that I could just as easily blame on label manipulation. Besides, Voyageur’s got some pretty savvy tunes. So here are the facts you need to know: Kathleen Edwards is a Canadian singer/songwriter who has been writing music since 2002. Voyageur marks her career’s tenth anniversary, and it seems to be poised to be her most successful record yet (for which we’ll talk about a little later).

As a songwriter, Edwards lacks the quirk of Laura Veirs or the confidence of Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist, but she carves out a personality for herself as passionate and self-depreciating. “I’m moving to America,” she asserts at Voyageur’s beginning, but then cuts herself off by admitting her boasts as “an empty threat.” On “House Full of Empty Rooms,” she is critical of herself as she mulls over the breakup that consumes her throughout the album. “I’m far from perfect,” she concedes. “I’m far from anything / But when we were together, I swear I made you happy.” In such moments, Edwards is uncompromising and Voyageur’s instrumentation follows suit. As “Change the Sheets” builds to a euphoric climax, Edwards grieves, “Here’s the truth / I swear I was fun,” before a momentous chorus carries her sorrows to an album highlight. Even at that point, though, Edwards can’t help but dig at herself. Her request at that chorus? “Change the sheets and then change me.”

However, the problem with Voyageur is that such excellent moments come within the first few tracks, leaving the album’s second half open for Edwards to downplay her strengths with plaintive acoustic guitar strums and plinking pianos. Not that these tracks that smooth out the flow of the record are particularly bad, but they compromise distinctiveness for comprehensiveness, approaching the bland anonymity of Marissa Nadler or, as Stephen Thompson of NPR puts it, “the sort of lovely, undemanding sleeper that tends to disappear amid strong reviews and low sales.” It is in these moments when Edwards’s double-tracked vocals bear striking resemblance to Laura Veirs’s, drawing comparisons that only further devastate Edwards’s identity.

And let’s be honest for a moment: A huge reason why Kathleen Edwards is being recognized now as opposed to ten years ago is because she’s recently started dating Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon, who coproduced the album. But, to be fair, aside from the guitar solo in “Going to Hell,” he leaves no clear mark, let alone evidence of him trying to steal the show. Instead, Vernon plays a thematic role on Voyageur, in which Edwards wrenches herself from the arms of a lover and into the arms of someone new. That fervency is what makes Voyageur unique, and it’s obvious Edwards’s emotions are best expressed when the music matches her intensity. The highs of the album provide that in spades, but, overall, it finds itself somewhat lacking. Voyageur makes a solid case for the solvency of Edwards as a songwriter, but too often feels like a stopgap rather than a statement.  


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