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In the worlds of electronica, hiphop, and even nü metal, it’s long been a given that DJs are musicians, too—and sometimes even good ones. But how about in a less technologically advanced genre? How about in one that looks back as much as forward, that venerates scratchy old 78s as much as anything you might hear on WMZQ? In other words, how about in alt-country? That’s an easy one: Laura Cantrell, the New York– residing radio personality responsible for Radio Thrift Shop, has produced an album so good you’ll want to eat it. Her latest, Humming by the Flowered Vine, to stick with the metaphor, is a veritable smorgasbord of exquisitely presented torch, twang, and country of both the rock and pop varieties.
If the hype squad at Matador, Cantrell’s media-savvy new record label, plays its publicity cards right, the disc should rack up miles of column inches in the mainstream press come year-end top-10 time. Of course, the Nashville-born singer is plenty media-savvy herself, having worked as a high-ranking Wall Street exec in addition to hosting her Saturday-afternoon show, which originates from the famously free-form studios of New Jersey’s WFMU-FM.
Thrift Shop playlists tilt toward country and Americana staples, with Gene Autry, Sammi Smith, and bluegrass great Jimmy Martin all popping up in recent months. In the past, Cantrell’s own records have suffered in direct proportion to the qualities that make her such a great radio host: Her infectious enthusiasm for the traditional music she so obviously adores apparently caused some bad cases of fan-besotted paralysis once she exited the DJ booth and hit the recording studio.
Not to say that her two previous studio albums—2000’s Not the Tremblin’ Kind and 2002’s When the Roses Bloom Again—didn’t come outfitted with a barnful of charm. They most definitely did—so much so that the late, great John Peel, to whose memory Humming is dedicated, once claimed that Not the Tremblin’ Kind was his “favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life.” Still, by comparison with her latest, Cantrell’s first outings now seem like the dusty, neo-traditionalist museum pieces you’d expect from a true-blue record nerd.
On Humming, she slips off the shackles of that particular form, keeping things down-home, certainly, but leaving the front-porch rocker long enough to uncork a pop gem like “14th Street,” the incessantly catchy, Emily Spray– penned ditty that kick-starts the new album. Set to a tick-ticking rhythm and spooled out over a gorgeous, winsome melody, the song’s lyric is the sweetest little poem about stalking you’re ever likely to hear: “Now I’m so close behind you, almost in your shadow,” Cantrell coos over a barely-there swell of Hammond and Telecaster. “Maybe one step or two, and I’d be walking next to you,” she allows with casually expert phrasing before the track’s goosebumper of a chorus kicks in again, cementing the tune’s best-of-disc honors.
That’s an exceedingly close call on Humming, however. Cantrell cherry-picks an ancient, unreleased Lucinda Williams song, “Letters,” and gives it a gritty, soulful reading that somehow manages to conjure both Neil Young and Dusty Springfield—no small feat, that. Elsewhere, “What You Said,” a swirling, fiddle-streaked ditty by Jenifer Jackson that first appeared on that singer-songwriter’s fine 2001 album, Birds, is pure hootenanny bliss. The song clocks in at a mere 2:54, but the thing could go on for an hour and still seem too short. Fortunately, Cantrell offers an ace take on honky-tonker Wynn Stewart’s “Wishful Thinking” as a kind of toe-tapping companion piece, a track that picks up—thanks mainly to some deftly played pedal steel—where “What You Said” left off: smack-dab in the middle of a county-fair hoedown.
But as strong as Cantrell’s renditions of other writers’ tunes are this time out, it’s the disc’s clutch of originals that make Humming the best album of her career. In addition to a new arrangement of the traditional “Poor Ellen Smith,” Cantrell chips in three new ones and co-writes “Bees,” a haunting, funereally paced ballad, with her longtime co-conspirator, Jay Sherman-Godfrey. The song’s lyric is mournful and reflective, sung from the point of view of a dying old man reminiscing about his long-gone drinking buddies. But it’s also literarily sophisticated, an evocative dramatic monologue set to music that, in Cantrell’s hands, wrings real emotion out of material that might otherwise be merely maudlin.
Credit that not only to the tastefully restrained accompaniment and uncluttered production (by Dwight Yoakam bassist JD Foster), but also to Cantrell’s voice. It’s fragile yet not without toughness, ethereal but with more than a hint of earthiness. Clear and not quite controlled enough to sound schooled, it recalls both Jean Ritchie and Emmylou Harris, and is as well-suited to the ultra-melancholy “Bees” as it is to Cantrell’s more upbeat exclusive copyrights. “Khaki & Corduroy” is a gentle torch song, a sensuous tune powered mainly by Dennis McDermott’s brushed snare drum and Cantrell’s delicate warble. “California Rose,” by contrast, is a fast-paced country two-stepper, one with echoes of both Harris and Rose Maddox, the honky-tonk-era great for whom the track is named.
Best of all the originals, though, is the disc’s closer, “Old Downtown,” which finds Cantrell stretching farthest beyond her neo-traditionalist roots. Formally speaking, the song is country-rock, but the emphasis here is firmly on the latter half of that hybrid. It isn’t the most accessible track on Humming—hats off to “14th Street” again—but that’s to its advantage. Or, more specifically, to the advantage of guitarist Dave Schramm, who takes the opportunity to turn in the kind of twangadelia known only to those equipped with an EBow. At just over the 6-minute mark, the song resonates like an epic on this disc of pithy ditties, suggesting that Cantrell has ambition to burn—not to mention a longing to connect with an audience that isn’t necessarily acquainted with every B-side in the Uncle Tupelo songbook.
Don’t get me wrong: Cantrell deserves—and will no doubt take—those guys, too. But if and when fans of, say, the Dixie Chicks get hold of this one, look out: This is one DJ who doesn’t need a boycott to threaten the best little trio in Texas.CP
Cantrell performs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, at Iota Club & Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 522-8340.