01.17.12 (Maple Music)
Of the many female musicians to pepper the Canadian landscape, only a precious few (Austra’s Katie Stelmanis, Metric’s Emily Haines) are unique enough to make waves while the majority of others fall together into an indistinguishable (albeit pretty-voiced) chorus of not-quite-Feists. Kathleen Edwards is most certainly the former; a woman who has been working hard at cultivating her sound, and it shows. Having released three studio albums over the past nine years, Edwards is no stranger to many Canadians, but her latest LP, Voyageur (and first since 2008’s critically acclaimed Asking for Flowers), is poised to make her a household name.
Exceptional songwriting skills have always set Edwards apart from the lot; her characterization is consistently solid and her lyrics are wonderfully woven—each one carefully chosen for dramatic effect. Though she stays true to these strengths on Voyageur, she also experiments with new ideas and brings some fresh bits for fans to savour (more strings, percussion, harmonies and collaborations). The result is an album with a more robust and dynamic sound than can be heard in past releases.
Much of the sonic evolution found on Voyaguer can be attributed to Edwards’ open-mindedness when conceptualizing the album: “I didn’t want to be this four-chord acoustic singer-songwriter because that stuff just got so old to me,” she explained in the album’s teaser trailer. One new avenue Edwards explores is collaborative songwriting; the LP features a slew of guests including Norah Jones, S. Carey (Bon Iver), Phil Cook (Megafaun) and Edwards’ boyfriend/Bon Iver originator, Justin Vernon. As an aside it must be noted that Justin Vernon, who serves as co-producer and lends his vocals and multi-instrumental skills to various tracks, has a flair for instrumentation and creating new textures by infusing acoustic tracks with electronic elements—a touch he whole-heartedly brings to Voyageur. Vocally, he takes a different approach than usual, trading in his show-stopping falsetto for his lower register, which nicely complements Edwards’ clear and bright voice.
Voyageur opens on a high note with the delightful Empty Threat, an up-tempo track about toying with the idea of leaving Canada. Edwards is instantly likeable as she sings, “I’m its favourite flower / I’m bloomin’ through the concrete cracks of this condo tower.” Despite the high spirits of the opening track the transition to the darker and equally absorbing Chameleon/Comedian is seamless. In fact, Voyageur on the whole feels like one journey, each song a chapter rather than a separate tale; there are moments of pure joy and bliss and others that speak of loneliness, frustration and heartache.
Love is a major theme on the album, and some of Edwards’ best moments come when she sings about the incessant push and pull—the thrill and torment—that it brings. The achingly beautiful Soft Place to Land mesmerizes from its first piano chord and provokes just over four minutes of deep reflection from the listener. Edwards’ voice melds perfectly with Vernon’s as they tell a tale of misunderstood love and desperate longing; the desperation can actually be felt on the bridge as the lazy electric guitar gives way to a wounded violin and the drums accelerate. The melancholia doesn’t last long, though, as next- in-line is the exhilarating, Change the Sheets, a quintessential driving (or sprinting) song. Edwards reels in the audience with the supercharged chorus and takes them on an exuberant ride as she fittingly exclaims, “run run run run run!”
Voyageur closes with its longest track, the lingering For the Record which clocks in at just over seven minutes. Everything culminates as an exposed and defeated Edwards sings “hang me up on your cross / for the record, I only wanted to sing songs.” There is an undeniable honesty in both her words and delivery.
Once again, Edwards has crafted an album that is memorable, heartfelt and true to her signature storytelling, but this time around she comes wielding an axe—and she hacks the bloody hell out of any pre-conceived notions of what her music sounds like. Folk, Rock, Alt-Country—call it what you will; Voyageur is not a departure for Edwards so much as a striking metamorphosis. The album comes at just the right time; with the recent upsurge in the number of female musicians gaining recognition out of Canada, Edwards may finally get the widespread attention she deserves.
— By Amanda Gallagher, freelance writer and wearer of many (tiny) hats.