or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
The art of the light entertainer is becoming an increasingly complex and muddled one, and one that a rapidly decreasing number of people are any good at. In Britain, people find themselves encumbered and conflicted by the post-modern ironic trends, the desire to appear ‘cool’ and in some way detached from (and therefore, presumably, better than) the past, and the need to engender familiarity with the audience—to give them what it is presumed they want. You find yourself drowning in a sea of smarm, as faceless careerist ex-Redcoats scramble to follow in the precise footsteps of the ones who went before, or trendy young things, secure in the knowledge that they must be better than the light entertainers of the 1980’s because they’ll probably die earlier—who balance ill-judged edginess with worse-judged attempts at ‘light entertainment,’ or their assumed ideal of it. Witness Jimmy Carr trying to encourage the audience on Distraction to cheer the contestants on. Worked for Bruce Forsyth, didn’t it? The light entertainers of today are too fake, too insincere, too cold to ever connect. Dale Winton tells every losing contestant on the National Lottery game show he presents that he’s “so sorry,” like he’s about to cremate them. They get complacent, relying so heavily on that which has gone before without having any idea why, other than that it worked and people seem to like it (see the horrifically depressing slide into self-regurgitation that has become Peter Kay). There’s no love, no heart, no connection—everything for effect, because no-one takes this seriously, do they? It’s all just a bit of a laugh. No point in caring. Boybands, then another one, then another one, then an-other one…
Laura Cantrell is something like what happens when it goes right. It’s a marvellous, marvellous thing. One of my fondest memories of listening to John Peel was when he’d play her records, and introduce them by saying “And now, Laura.” Laura has the connection, the sense of familiarity whereby you feel comfortable just talking about her by her first name, just like all the best pop stars. I’d sit and listen and be spellbound, and I could imagine it happening up and down the country too, three minutes of people just sitting and smiling, easing themselves back into their chairs and listening to Laura… hackneyed, maybe, but that’s genuinely how it felt.
Laura is a country singer who was born and raised in Nashville, moved to New York to go to university, wound up juggling a fairly big position at a major international banking firm with doing a show on Saturday lunchtimes on WFMU, started gigging around New York, eventually recorded an album which somehow found itself getting released on a label run by Teenage Fanclub’s drummer. It falls into John Peel’s lap, he adores it and plays something off it at every opportunity he can get, as does Bob Harris. Moderate hugeness ensues, second album released a year or two later to rapturous applause, tours with Elvis Costello, plays Grand Ol’ Opry, quits job to go full-time at the music thing, tours with Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, gets signed to Matador, record out later this year, thus she will be as big as Interpol. Maybe.
I didn’t know any of that when I heard her for the first time, and most of the times afterwards too. It didn’t matter, because listening to Laura sing was magical. Her voice wasn’t spectacular but it was perfectly clear: pitch, enunciation, and her delightful Southern twang. It’s not the most powerful of voices, and every now and then it sounded a little strained, but there was such impossible clarity to it all. The arrangements were by and large pretty simple too—the playing was impressive and so on (though I only realised that an awful lot later), but never flashy or showy, and neither was her singing. Everything got its place and its room, as Laura sang her tales of lost and found love, fear and love of the world, the tales of the people of the South, the story of her idols and her beloved country music. Even when the tales were sad there was still such incredible warmth and love in their performance, such honesty that one couldn’t help but be captivated, embraced by them. Laura—we didn’t know her, not at all, but that voice of hers was so clear and distinct, so open and honest that we were in love. It could be the loneliest, coldest, rainiest night that Birmingham had ever seen (given John Peel’s timeslot, the chances of that were quite good), but when she came on the radio it did the trick every single time.
The flipside of modern light-entertainment, you see, is that an awful lot of the old-time light entertainers were also bloody awful (for instance, I used to think Tim Kash’s time as host of Top Of The Pops represented some kind of nadir, and then I saw Simon Bates attempt to introduce Bauhaus. It was like I’d died and gone to Swindon). However, they always try and justify themselves by pointing out how popular they were, the connection they felt with their audience, the exact thing that today’s breed find themselves visibly and audibly flailing for. In The Nation’s Favourite, Simon Garfield’s book about the overhauling of Radio 1 in the 1990’s, Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates talk incessantly about how they saw themselves as being like ‘the special friend’ of the listener (they probably used a slightly less creepy term than that), like a person that was there with them in the room, keeping them company.
While that tends to feel like their excuse for repeatedly talking all over the records, playing up to stereotypes, never daring to challenge the status quo and being patronising to the point of tooth decay, with Laura it somehow rings true. She’s there, this adjunct, this window into her perfectly crafted and lovingly curated world. It’s so simple, so beautiful, so honest and it gets you every time. There is never a bad time to listen to Laura.
(for further information there’s a rather fantastic interview with Laura on Drowned In Sound that I rather wish I’d found out about before I’d started this piece. Also, Laura’s website has a whole raft of songs available for downloading, all of which are utterly peachy. But ‘Indoor Fireworks’ is especially good)