Album of the Week, January 26: Failer by Kathleen Edwards

KEdwardsFailerKathleen Edwards was born in Ottawa, ON in 1978; the daughter of a diplomat, she lived much of her early life abroad, relying on her brother’s Neil Young and Bob Dylan albums as the foundation of her musical education. She took violin lessons from the ages of five to nineteen, adding guitar in her teens and beginning to sing. She began performing and by the age of 21 was managing her own gigs. Writing rootsy songs that have been compared to Neil Young and Suzanne Vega, she compiled a nice set of tracks before going into the studio to record her first album. Demonstrating remarkable confidence and maturity at 23, she crafted a stunning disc, using her keen observational powers and aching narratives to tell the stories of compelling characters in gripping — often grim – circumstances.

Title Failer
Act Kathleen Edwards
Label Zoë Release Date Jan. 14, 2003
Producer Dave Draves and Kathleen Edwards
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Six O’Clock News
  2. One More Song the Radio Won’t Like
  3. Hockey Skates
  4. The Lone Wolf
  5. 12 Bellevue
  6. Mercury
  7. Westby
  8. Maria
  9. National Steel
  10. Sweet Little Duck

Things kick off hard with the well-meaning loser gone wrong narrative of Six O’Clock News. Narrated by the protagonist’s long-suffering girlfriend, it’s a potent, rocking song that ends just as badly as you know it has to. It’s a testament to Edwards’ lyrical strength that both main characters are sympathetic and pathetic all at once.

One More Song the Radio Won’t Like is a direct slam at the recording and broadcasting industries for the way they treat strong women. Nicely constructed and sung with just the right balance of grit and bile, it shows that Edwards handles fact as compellingly as fiction. Things slow way down for the aching Hockey Skates, another song of a bold girl on the outside. This one is mournful (but not maudlin) and remains one of her finest moments, including the heartbreaking observation “I’m so tired of playing defence and I don’t even have hockey skates.” Charmingly Canadian and powerfully universal, it gets to the heart of Edwards’ amazing writing.

The Lone Wolf is the metaphorical tale of a doomed romance, clearly drawing on the narrative traditions of Neil Young. It’s quietly powerful, and keeps the album moving nicely. 12 Bellevue is the most energetic rocker, another doomed-life scenario with a ripping guitar line and Edwards’ most belting vocal. Coming after the two slower, softer tracks, it shocks on multiple levels, demonstrating how good sequencing can make a strong album even stronger.

Mercury is a tale of addiction, adding nicely to a long-standing rock tradition with Edwards’ own distinct engaged, observational narration. Westby is another classic motif, the cheating husband, with a great twist. Narrated by the subject’s (presumably younger) girl on the side, it contrasts his desperation with her confidence, creating a complex picture that really works. It also features some of her most witty writing, including the biting observation “I don’t think your wife would like my friends.” Maria is another well-crafted story song, a lovely number that gets a bit lost in the great songs surrounding it, more a testament to the other nine tracks than to any real shortcomings.

National Steel is another personal sketch that is achingly slow and horribly sad, with just enough bite to give it real traction. It’s one of the album’s real standouts mixing sorrow with quiet rage in just the right balance. Things wrap up with the quiet, lovely Sweet Little Duck, perhaps the most optimistic song on the disc. A sort of love conquers all (we hope) track, it shows off Edwards’ diversity and ends things just right. The whole package is so compelling that it’s hard to believe it’s over after the last note fades. Edwards wound up on many year-end lists of best album and most promising newcomer, accolades richly deserved by this promising, compelling debut.

FURTHER LISTENING: Edwards has released albums steadily over the past decade, with three more discs coming out. Each is wonderful in its own right, showing her consistency, confidence, and deep talent. The best of the three is Asking For Flowers, another great set of observational and narrative songs that make the most of her wry soprano, musical foundations. and distinct vision.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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