Laura Cantrell’s come a long way since she first befriended John
Flansburgh, co-leader of the band They Must Be Giants, over a decade ago and made her
tentative bow singing on one of their albums.
Yet, it’s to her credit that Cantrell’s never turned her back on her
earliest influences, paying homage to Burt Bacharach and Hal David on the title
track of her last album, Trains and Boats
and Planes, while covering the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Merle Haggard,
John Hartford, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot as well.
A popular deejay at WFMU-FM and a contributor to both The New York Times and Vanity Fair.com, she knows her way
around her subjects, but even so, it’s remarkable how she summons the spirit of
Country music queen Kitty Wells and finds common ground between this classic
material and her own tempestuous treatments. The title track, the album’s sole
original offering, sets the stage with an evocative ode to both Wells and her
contemporaries – Mother May Maybel, June Carter Cash and all the other
Rockabilly ladies that made a mark “from Mobile to Memphis.” She may be voicing
every girl’s dream, as she says in the song, but she still makes the sentiments
The rest of the record follows suit, and in tapping into
these tunes, Cantrell actually seems to transform herself into that big-haired
balladeer. The sweet, homespun honky-tonk that distinguished Wells’ work is
nicely nurtured here, and when the fiddles kick off Wells’ signature song “It
Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” authenticity is all but assured.
Shimmering steel guitar maintains a cool caress, steering the sound from
classic to contemporary and blurring the lines in-between. A bruised and
battered “One By One” — which finds her locked in a duet with Chuck Mead of
BR549 — effectively rekindles the spirit of Johnny and June, while the
heartbroken ballad “I Gave My Wedding Dress Away,” with its obligatory spoken
word interlude, effectively captures the bittersweet remorse articulated by all
the great Country crooners.
Yet even pitted against her predecessors, Cantrell herself
steals the show, demonstrating that even in channeling a Country queen, she’s
still capable of seizing the spotlight.
Wells Dresses,” “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” “One By One” LEE