Music Monday: Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur

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Kathleen Edwards has a penchant for bittersweet ballads. An earnest singer-songwriter, her voice is sweet and her her song subjects — from budding love to break-ups to “what am I doing with my life”-type explorations — all pleasantly familiar. Her instrument of choice is the guitar. In short, she sounds much like someone you’ve heard before. Actually, like a lot of people you’ve heard before. That may be her biggest problem.

Her music is a crisp poppy folk-rock blend delivered with a slight twang—a perkier Sarah McLachlan with a grounding in country music. Each instrument on her new album Voyageur, from the keyboards to the swelling strings that accompany her lilting voice on songs like “Change the Sheets” and “Going to Hell,” can be easily distinguished. Voyageur is a snappy album, but with enough well-placed ballads that slow things down and give the record a chance to breathe. It’s a fine piece of work—fine, not great— but it doesn’t give us a reason to separate Edwards from her peers.

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Voyageur is Edwards’ fourth album. The Canadian singer broke out in 2002 with a South by Southwest performance so strong it earned her a record deal; her first album, Failer, came out in 2003. Back then, she was a Lucinda Williams clone, with a throaty voice that could easily be mistaken for the alt-country star. Over subsequent albums, Edwards lost the husk and her sound morphed into something more folky, yet awash in pop hooks. With Voyageur, Edwards comes into her own as a singer and a performer. Much of the music written during her 2011 divorce from her husband, fellow Canadian musician Colin Crips; as such, many of the songs on Voyageur are about failed romances and the quest for personal healing. The first single, “Change the Sheets” is a near-perfect rock-pop song, driven by a pulsing keyboard and accentuated by a muted chorus that ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ behind Edwards’ willful declarations that she wants to start her life anew.

Edwards is now dating Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who co-produced Voyageur and provided backing vocals and musical assistance (he played guitar, piano, organ, bass, banjo and xylophone on the album). Vernon must have a very light touch though, because despite all the instruments, his presence is almost undetectable. Norah Jones, John Roderick, Bon Iver’s Sean Carey and others all lend a hand, but Voyageur is very clearly Edwards’ work. Even someone as recognizable as Jones — who lends her famously hushed voice for harmonies on the album’s last song, “For the Record” — is used so sparingly that if you’re not paying attention, you might miss her contribution completely.

Despite Voyageur‘s charming tunes and the publicity boost that Vernon’s name has afforded the project, Edwards has one big problem: she’s working in acoustic alt-rock and pop that was popular a decade ago (think: Leona Naess, Aimee Mann) while the current trend among female singer-songwriters leans more toward the British soul revival ushered in by Amy Winehouse and most recently sharpened by Adele. That doesn’t mean that there’s no place at all for her music, but it means that Edwards will have to work extra hard to convince people to pay attention to her. Voyageur isn’t quite strong enough to accomplish that. The album works in well trod themes of romance and heartache, and Edwards’ vague lyrics—”I was feeling so lost for so long,” she says in “Sidecar,” but doesn’t explain why—make it difficult for listeners to get a sense of how she might offer them something musically or thematically unique. Edwards is asking us to embark on a voyage, but she seems unsure of the destination.

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