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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
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Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
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Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Laura Cantrell
Humming by the Flowered Vine
Matador Records

Rating: 8.5/10 ?

August 3, 2005
I have been avoiding country for several years. After a mammoth-sized infatuation with alt-country four years ago when I heard Ryan Adams and early Wilco for the first time, I set aside this genre thinking it had run its course. I also remembered that I had never been to Tennessee, and should therefore have little affinity with the Whiskeytown songs that reveled in its geography.

Fast-forward to last week, when I first heard Laura Cantrell's Humming by the Flowered Vine. Everything I loved about alt-country was there: the romantic, drunken twang, the simple and sincere lyrics, the washes of guitars and strings… Cantrell, though, picks up where pre-Cold Roses Ryan Adams left off; whereas Adams tried too hard be the gravelly voice of a generation of heartbreakers in western shirts, Cantrell's voice is effortlessly perfect. She doesn't need to hide her lyrics behind a supposedly-tortured voice - they are sad and sexy and pretty by themselves.

"Khaki and Corduroy" is the album's finest song; it speaks volumes of Cantrell's beautiful subtlety. "Sometimes I see the faces/In the most unlikely places" is the extent of the chorus, and the only hint Cantrell gives us that the song is about old friends she sometimes remembers. The track is one of only a few originals on the album (less than half were written by Cantrell), but the covers are as heartfelt and sincere as her own pieces - "Letters" is a remake of the Lucinda Williams song but nothing about the track sounds transplanted.

As is typical of Humming by the Flowered Vine, Cantrell is comfortable spinning old material into something fresh. The murder ballad, "Poor Ellen Smith", comes from a time before Loretta Lynn was around, and though you can here the classic country feel in the song's ho-down stomp, Cantrell's voice and the professional mix make it sound semi-new. I would expect a country/folk artist to go all rootsy with such an old song, but Cantrell's choice to use an electric bass rather than a jug of moonshine is what separates her from overly-nostalgic peers; she understands that old songs are good but can be improved upon.

A native of Nashville, Cantrell attended college in New York and picked up a few pointers from the scene while staying true to her Grand Ole Opry heritage (at Columbia, Cantrell hosted a country radio show called "Tennessee Border"). Humming by the Flowered Vine's closing song, "Old Downtown", seems to be equal parts North and South. The inherent gloominess of a walk around Nashville (why is this so sad, anyway?) is matched with guitar crunch and even a hint of synth. The fact that she's speaking of downtown Nashville demonstrates that Cantrell has dodged the clichéd love affair songwriters have with NYC - a claim that not even Omaha's boy wonder, Bright Eyes, can make anymore.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a music snob who can't be won over by Cantrell's lovely compositions. The king of obscurity himself, John Peel, was a huge fan of Cantrell, going as far to say her debut album was "My favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life." In yet another display of her genuine nature, Cantrell dedicated Humming by the Flowered Vine to the memory of the late DJ. It's enough to make a certain guy look back at his old alt-country discs and sigh - partly because of fond memories, and partly because I now know Cantrell easily outshines them all.

Reviewed by Andy Brown
A regular contributor to LAS, Andy Brown lives in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, but doesn\'t think he has an accent.

See other reviews by Andy Brown



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