"When the Roses Bloom Again"
The first words on Laura Cantrell's sophomore album are "I've been sitting all night listening to my records," an image from "Too Late for Tonight" that suggests both the temporary absence of a lover and the perpetual emotional sustenance of good songs. Nashville-bred and New York-based, Cantrell writes good songs and borrows from a small circle of singer-songwriter friends; until recently, she also mined forgotten country and bluegrass gems as host of "Radio Thrift Shop" on WFMU, a free-form radio station in New Jersey.
In other words, there's no shortage of good songs from yesterday and today on this collection, and Cantrell bridges those periods, first with "Mountain Fern," her heartfelt tribute to Molly O'Day, a pioneering '40s hillbilly singer dubbed the female Hank Williams, and later with the classic old-timey title track, a Carter Family song rearranged alt-country style by Wilco after they mistakenly thought Woody Guthrie had written it. Dropped from the band's and Billy Bragg's "Mermaid Avenue" project, it was adopted by their pal Cantrell. Other nods to the past include a bluegrass-stained "Yonder Comes a Freight Train" and the Kitty Wells honky-tonk weeper "Oh So Many Years."
Peer pleasures include Amy Rigby's "Don't Break the Heart," Joe Flood's Byrdsian "All the Same to You" and Dave Schramm's peace meditation "Conqueror's Song." But the truth is, Cantrell's four originals are among the best songs on the album, particularly a trio of bittersweet ruminations on the vagaries of love. Besides the plaintive opener, there's disappointment tempered with resilience as a woman remembers the more upbeat "Early Years" of a relationship, and, best of all, the crater-deep melancholy of "Broken Again," in which a wounded Cantrell pleads "I can't be broken again/ There'd be nothing left of me/ My heart won't stand and it won't bend/ I can't be broken again." Though she's ably supported by producer Jay Sherman-Godfrey and some Brooklyn-based cowboys, it's Cantrell's voice that elevates these disparate songs to high lonesome art. Vulnerable, and at times downright fragile, it's a voice that evokes inner strengths as old as the hills and as tough as the tenements, a voice that begs to be heard.
-- Richard Harrington
Appearing Tuesday at IOTA with 52 Pickup. * To hear a free sound bite from Laura Cantrell, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)