Laura Cantrell
Humming By The Flowered Vine

portents—bit worrying. “Collaborating with Calexico.” Not that there’s anything wrong with Calexico per se, but there’s always seemed to be something about Laura that you sense lashings of mariachi trumpets and fiddles wouldn’t exactly enhance. She’s never been fragile or timid, twee or pretentious, but her two previous albums had such clarity of sound and vision that throwing in added instrumentation seems a bit pointless, if not downright rude. Her voice was so expressive because of its incredible calm and internal fortitude, never needing to do too much or to over-elaborate.

Humming By The Flowered Vine, then, is a step out into the wider world. Not quite “Hey, she’s on the same label as Interpol, make clear the hit parade!”, but a step up from being on tiny Scottish indie label Spit & Polish. By and large, it’s a triumphant move…

After a few listens, that is. Initially, you start worrying that they’ve lost her voice somewhere, like when the guitars on “Letters” start jutting out their jaws that bit too much, or “Khaki & Corduroy,” which sometimes sounds as though they’ve specifically hired a dancefloor in order to make it authentically deserted, and then got someone in to sweep it in a suitably forlorn manner. Sometimes it does sound like The First Ever Country Record On Matador, too tied down to ideas of what country records are supposed to sound like, too desperate to prove itself to the alt-country milieu, too busy looking for its cred to have got round to being any good.

And then Laura looks you in the eyes and you realise that really, you’re being a bit of a twit. She’s still there, the same as she ever was. Her surroundings have just got a bit grander. “Wishful Thinking” is irresistible, a steel-pedalled swinger that twirls and twangs as Laura, with just a wee bit of a smirk on her lips, shrugs “I’ll just live my life in dreams / And long for your love / It’s you I’m wishin’ for / And it’s you I’m thaaan-ken’ of… Please make my wishful thinking come true.” She’s so warm, tender, and playful that saying no hurts too damn bad to even contemplate. Similarly, her version of “Poor Ellen Smith” might seem like a somewhat unnecessary addition, but it gets touched with such good nature that you don’t care—you might not notice if it were gone, but it’s not gone, and it’s quite good too.

She’s still got her flaws, in so far as if there’s a poor lyric she can’t really do too much with it—her voice is perhaps too clean cut and honest to disguise it too well. “Letters,” a previously unrecorded Lucinda Williams song, contains the following:
Wasn’t very funny
I didn’t have much money
There was not much food on the table
Not much food on the table

I was feeling pretty low-oh
Heard a knock at my door
It was Western Union with a cable
Western Union with a cable
And the trouble is that Laura sings it like she is absolutely convinced that it’s a really good lyric. Given that most of her recorded output consists of her doing versions of little-known country songs by other artists, it’s understandable that she often seems in awe of the material, and it almost pains you when she picks out a seeming duffer. This happens twice on the album, with “Letters” and “What You Said,” the album’s second track, which shoots for jaunty and just ends up seeming a bit awkward.

Surprisingly, though, “Letters” eventually reveals itself to be a jewel in the crown. Yes, the lyrics are a touch stilted, the backing’s maybe a touch strident, and Laura’s over-reaching for a high note on the second “Western Yoon-YAHHN” is a bit painful, but after a while you realise that, well, yes, it is nice receiving letters. It’s nice hearing from people. That brief string crescendo doesn’t jar, it tingles. The bit where everything stops and the backing vocals are left to get all “River Deep Mountain High,” a staircase of “Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh / Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh…” is genuinely inspiring, and by the end, as Laura’s voice starts sounding a bit battered but still so sure of itself and its purpose, and now finds itself getting carried and pushed up the mountain by those guitars and backing vocals, summoning up the courage to once more declare “Early in the day, late at night / Whatever you’re feeling, you can always write / Send me a letter, send it to me when you wanna reach me”—by that point, Laura feels like a heroine.

Not a goddess or a princess, a heroine. Goddess and princess status is conferred by default, a ranking to set apart, to be untouchable. Laura is never untouchable. To be a heroine is to have earned it, to be deservedly seen as special. “Letters” is just one of the times she earns it. “Khaki & Corduroy” ends up being that way too, grown-up Laura looking back at her time in university in New York having been born and raised in Nashville, the way she sings “Your heavy satchel, full of books” sounds impossibly tender, remembering her uncertainty and vulnerability at that time with fondness, maybe even wistfulness, knowing that it turned out OK in the end. Then later, she sings of “nights spent in the Spanish club, your arms around the one you love… find the beat, slow and sweet / Neon glow and dancefloor heat”—ain’t a case of “I like to party / Everybody does,” but rather a memory of that awakening, the evolution of the self through love, dancing, sexuality, and freedom, all the while set to the slow, brushed drums and muted piano. The dancefloor’s empty, but it’s still beautiful.

There’s still so much we’ve not mentioned: the way that “14th Street” sounds like the great number one single that the world needs NOW; how “And Still”’s stop-start approach, building up to crescendo, then settling, then rising again like huge waves buffeting the cliffs takes that Calexico sound and uses it to perfection; the beauty of Cantrell’s storytelling on “California Rose”… Most of all, though, there’s “Bees.” Laura sings of the end. “My time is short now / I hear it coming / I see you darling / In the morning light.” It’s slow and impossibly dignified, Laura, a piano, and a humming noise. There’s a line about “I tune the crystal set / It’s never failed me yet” that makes me think of John Peel playing her records and it makes me weep a bit, but that’s just me. What ain’t just me is the part where the piano drops out and it’s just Laura.
I miss the bees
I miss their honey
I miss them humming
By the flowered vine
My time is short now
I feel it coming
I see you darling
On the other side
Tradition isn’t cliché. Hurting isn’t whining. Honesty isn’t unctuousness. The last song, “Old Downtown,” has a one a half minute outro, as Laura leaves the stage and the crowd applauds. Laura Cantrell—so good, she deserves an outro.

Buy it at Insound!

Reviewed by: William B. Swygart
Reviewed on: 2005-06-23
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