Unknown Legend

Kathleen Edwards gets her Neil freak on with 'Back to Me'

She used to work in a diner
Never saw a woman look finer
I used to order just to watch
her float across the floor
She grew up in a small town
Never put her roots down
Daddy always kept movin',
so she did too.
--Neil Young, "Unknown Legend"

It makes sense that Kathleen Edwards covered hero Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" during her most recent appearance on Santa Monica, Calif., radio station KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic.

"Well, I was born in Ottawa, but my father was in the foreign service," she told the show's host, Nic Harcourt, in a very lucid interview. "So I ended up moving around my whole life, from Canada to Asia to Europe. And at the time, you wish you were like every other kid, you know, spending your whole life in one place. But when you grow up, you realize it's a pretty amazing way to live, and you can't help but benefit from all the influences."

That Edwards has benefited is obvious, maybe not as much as one would expect musically, but certainly in the intestinal fortitude it takes to become a musical road warrior. And that's almost more important, since she's now released her second, critically acclaimed full-length record on Rounder, a label known for its authenticity and folk-centric musicianship.

Back to Me is her follow up to Failer, her ironically titled, Lucinda Williams-meets-Neil Young debut. But Back to Me shows her growth, not just as a confident singer-songwriter, but as a bandleader.

On Back, it's obvious Edwards is not afraid of her full roadhouse band's muscle or virtuoso capabilities, or her own a cappella confidence in serenades or soliloquies--or of letting the band write and even sing some, too. A song like "Good Things" is full of examples. Like a chip off the old Bonnie Raitt/Lucinda Williams block, Edwards leads and bleeds like a whirling dervish of countrified oxygen. "Copied Keys" is a personal fave, but it may be a little heavy for anyone who's never been in such a doomed, poignant relationship you just know can't work out.

Live, as Edwards is archived on KCRW.org (look up the old Morning Becomes Eclectic files), the Canuck chanteuse and her unnamed band can be most compelling. Covering hero Neil Young, she can twist ephemeral into spectral, infusing Young's purple rural poetry with an innocence and innocuous knowledge of art and setting that borders on both cute and scarily advanced at the same time. Edwards is decidedly unconscious at those moments, blissfully unaware of her power, and that's a good thing. Even with the wink-wink intro ("I won't tell you who this one's by ..." she giggles), it's a transcendent moment, and it's easy to see what the folks at oh-so-hard-to-please Rounder Records heard and saw in her as an unknown just a few years ago.

Edwards arguably misses with the band, at times. Sometimes, the songs' literate, poignant idiosyncrasies are diluted by unimaginative, adult-alt.country-pop-by-the-numbers arrangements, as when Edwards duets with her touring instrumentalist Jim Bryson on his song "Somewhere Else." Letting Bryson's aware, geeky voice come to the fore, the song's seemingly simple-minded narrative is saved lyrically by a tart couplet that twists its otherwise banal verses ("This town I once called home / I just can't hold on to") into a deeper metaphoric morass of dread and complexity at the very end: "Bit by bit I swear I think I'm losing / All this city's confidence."

But the music is snore-inducing, completely without a pulse to go with its oddly up-tempo swing. It's as if the two, lyrics and music, were recorded without prior knowledge of each other, at least conceptually, in this case.

Which is too bad, because the odd vocal pairing, arrangement and shared songwriting credit presented a chance to broaden her otherwise strong catalog.

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