We're supposed to choose our music regardless of whatever images it's packaged with, but there's something about the cover of Kathleen Edwards' Failer that effortlessly captures everything this album is about. A big clumsy Chevy Suburban sits with its hood up on some godforsaken road -- the skies are overcast and the trees are leafless. The feeling is one of perpetual November and the godforsaken road could be in any godforsaken corner of Nebraska, Saskatchewan, Utah (or Eastern Washington for that matter). Futility and frustration are as common as barbed wire and wild grass; we're all familiar with moments of what Edwards describes as spending "half your life trying to turn the other half around."
Which is something the 24-year-old Ottawa native, despite her youth, seems well acquainted with. Prior to making this album, she was traveling from town to town, sleeping in her Suburban and living the life of a musical nomad. Her voice is soft yet husky -- calling up comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Neil Young -- and its aching timbre could come just as easily from crying all night as from smoking a pack of cigarettes while staring out at the horizon. Her lyrics are those of hard-won experience: at times as careless and willful as only the young get to be, at others as full of a world-weariness you don't often see outside of Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris.
It's interesting that Failer opens with "Six O'clock News." It's by far the bounciest and most radio-friendly track on the album, but it's also one of the most problematic. It's the best showcase for Edwards' affecting and poignant vocals, and I like the immediacy of a lyric like "Peter, sweet baby, where'd you get that gun?" As the first song on an alt-country recording, though, it doesn't cover much new ground -- its arrangements sound a lot like Rosanne Cash's 1981 hit "Seven Year Ache" and ends with a predictable "Leader of the Pack" finish. And while it's got more infectious hooks than a tackle box, it lacks the complexity and subtlety of the rest of the album.
It might have been better to kick off with the Cowboy Junkies-esque "Maria," or even with "Hockey Skates," a quiet reproach to the old boys' club mentality. But leave "National Steel," with its bittersweet fiddle and unflinchingly honest vocals, right where it is. For edging toward an ending, it has just the right kind of meditative, melancholy note.