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It’s difficult to care about Edith Frost. There are too many other Dixie chicks and lipstick Patsies cruising country’s well-worn, too-worn back-roads-turned-main-roads: polished and pearled bluegrass songbirds (Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless), Southern Gothic poets for the Borders set (Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch), and members of the Bloodshot gang (Kelly Hogan, Neko Case). And then there’s Edith, our indie Enid at the crossroads, twanging away without fitting any of those easy tropes, worshipping the Carter Family without sounding like them, playing the blues for headphones instead of honky-tonks.
This is the same singer who grew up all over the placeSan Antonio, Austin, Guadalajarabefore settling in Brooklyn and now Chicago. Along the way, Frost let us know that she ain’t no alt-country queen, ditching a contract with a rootsy label for the very post-punk Drag City. She ditched a lot of music, too, trying Depression-era sounds as half of the Holler Sisters, Western swing with the Marfa Lights, and straight-up rockabilly as Edith and Her Roadhouse Romeos, before settling into her own style that’s a postcard from nowhere at all.
So there’s nothing too easy to grasp in her music. No rural signposts, no footnotes to Dusty, no odes to bad-but-hot men. Big deal. Those songs are for the CMA Awards. Frost doesn’t write for the CMAs. But that’s not why the new Wonder Wonder is so difficult a listen. No, it’s because Frost has done something that few of her contemporaries have: She’s made her songs delicate. Pillow talk between quiet voices interrupted by a few hushed notes off her baby-blue Strat.
It’s an uneasy feeling, listening to Frost. It’s uneasy in the way that waking up after two hours of sleep is, or the way you feel on your first night alone after a breakup. She wants you to feel a little out of place, a little not used to things, a little fragile. Her voice goes down darkand always missing something. It can sometimes just hang there, waiting, wondering, worrying. And if it stops worrying, it can take over a tune or two. Sweet turns sour. Sour turns sweet. Or sweet just gets too sweet. Three albums, some singles, and her own Internet radio station down the road, Frost still has the unique ability to come across like JonBenet Ramsey warbling the Patsy Cline songbook. It’s the juxtaposition of silly and sad.
On “Easy to Love,” a song dedicated to the consuming abilities of a lover, Frost suggests that maybe this relationship isn’t so easyand shouldn’t be. Her voice seesaws in nursery-rhyme time: “You’re just an angel from above/You’re just the lover that I’ve always dreamed of.” The piano trills in the middle. After a few listens, the ivories start to sound Fisher-Price. The song fades as a choir of indie boys powder the chorus: “It seems you’re very easy to love.”
Yeah, right. Easy to love.
When Frost sings about getting spurned, she loops her saddest phrases, letting the listener feel every painful moment, every difficult emotion. Her ballads play out like photo stills of heartbreak, desolate and grainy. On “True,” the guitars twinkle and the cymbals crash over and over again in slo-mo. “Who,” “Dreamers,” and “The Fear” flow by just as deliberately, with Frost’s cowgirl voice twisting between front-porch plucking and small cuts of feedback.
These songs work because they hold back from outright anger. There’s no payback moment. No sharp put-downs. Frost and her band of scenester vetsincluding Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Rick Rizzo (Eleventh Dream Day), and Archer Prewitt (The Sea and Cake)envelop her voice with moody cello, guitar, and piano lines. They’ve created a trancy sort of country, a music that dresses up Frost’s voice without seeming like so many cheaply glittering accessories.
And Frost always sounds as vulnerable as those first steps up to the mike. When she sings “I’ll do anything/I want to be loving/Who I want to be loving” over the plaintive tinkering of “Who,” you feel as uncomfortable with the sentiment as she must. Of course, it’s an odd kind of uncomfortable. Frost makes complicated, adult music yet shows off her baby pictures and boy-crazy diary entries on her Web site, where she announced her new record’s release thusly: “My new album Wonder Wonder is on the streets and actin’ sassy.”
Frost’s voice can get Dietrich-deep singing the silliest of metaphors. On “Merry Go Round,” a relationship poses as a child’s ride. As the violins and a ’70s golden-god guitar solo swirl around her, the singer drops to a mumble on the verses before drawing out every syllable of the chorus: “We go ’round and around/Merry go round/And around/Merry go round/And the damn thing never stops.”
Wonder Wonder’s set turns on this type of achy-breaky moment, even in its loveliest of songs. As bits of piano, organ, cymbals, and buzzing guitars spread confettilike through “You’re Decided,” Frost sings a most confident goodbye. Missing a lover or a friend, a little angry, a little blue, she still croons the tag line as sweet as ever: “I will always love you like this.” But it sounds like “I will always love you, I guess.”
“Cars and Parties,” the album’s standout, puts Frost in lock step with march-timing guitars, cellos, chimes, and horns. It’s both a mash note to Texas strip malls and a lament that Chicago has too many cars, too many parties, and not enough love prospects. While her No Depression counterparts see only the South’s past, resurrecting blues bars, AM radio, and the Depression, Frost sees Texas for what it’s become: a place like any other. Like Fairfax, Germantown, or Frederick. A place that’s difficult to care about.
And that’s OK with her. CP