Saturday, March 10, 2012

Change the sheets? Nope. Voyageur is more like change the disc

Ottawa singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards has steadily built a reputation of creating home grown folk and Americana. Leading up to the release of Voyageur, she seemed primed to make her biggest splash yet.This album has been drawing attention from all over the blogosphere for two main reasons. First, this is her first album since hooking up with beau Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, who is also the album's producer.

Second, and the main reason this album caught my attention, was for the lead single "Change the Sheets." It's a captivating and airy power pop track with breathy vocals that sees Edwards indulging the rather risque pleasures of "margaritas and sleeping pills." As lushly orchestrated as "Change the Sheets" is, however, it's not a great representation of the rest of the album. The instrumentation is much richer and there are many little effects added in that give it a zestier flavor.

The remainder of Voyageur generally features a much more stripped down and quieter sound, which unfortunately doesn't work as well as one might have hoped.

She does a nice job with the slow ballads. "House Full of Empty Rooms" tells of a relationship that has begun to lose a bit of its magic, and it comes across as very moody and pensive. "A Soft Place to Land" and "Going to Hell" can also certainly stir up a few emotions. The main issue with Voyageur is that Edwards doesn't sing with much of a sense of passion.

The remaining tracks are tuneful enough, but when the focal point of your music is the voice and writing, sometimes you need to have some bite. The album as a whole is lacking in terms of drive or energy. A cursory glance at previous albums will turn up tracks like "Back to Me," which captured a great biting spirit. Nor will you find any of the organic feel that made tracks like "6 O'clock News" suck a winner.

"Comedian/Chameleon," which tells of a person who tries to hide their insecurities by acting like a comedian, may be the most lyrically visceral track on Voyageur. But it doesn't register the kind of kick that you need for a song like this.

Lyrically, Edwards tends to paint a lot of imagery and use a great deal of metaphor, a bit of a departure from her earlier works. Songs like "Alicia Ross" and "Asking for Flowers" from her previous album tended to be much more direct and to the point, but here she tends to beat around the bush and it certainly causes the album to lose a bit of immediacy.

So what's gone wrong here? By listening to Voyageur, one could easily conclude that Edwards has lost her fire. But her previous work and her blistering live performances clearly indicate such is not the case. Perhaps Mr. Vernon's production work must bear some of the blame?

He's not known for being a firebrand himself, instead being much better known for his quaint, log cabin in the woods type of sound. If that's what he was going for, he missed the mark. The production work is too crisp, clear and clean to capture that pastoral sound made famous by the Bon Iver records. Rather, he's only succeeded in engineering a work that sounds dull, bland and lifeless.

Voyageur isn't quite what I would call a bad album. It's certainly listenable, and occasionally catchy. But the core values of being a folk based singer/songwriter is that you've got to have something to say, and a spark that draws people to your persona. A bit of gravel in your guts and spit in your eye, if you will. Unfortunately, Voyageur simply doesn't present me with a reason to care.

Score: 76/100

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