Welcome return after nine year hiatus for one of Americana’s most respected artists.
“(It is) my favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life”. Not a quote from myself but rather from legendary DJ John Peel who championed Laura Cantrell’s debut album ‘Not The Tremblin’ Kind’ on its release in 2000 and its acclaimed follow up in 2002 ‘When The Roses Bloom Again’. Both albums helped to cement Cantrell’s position at the spearhead of the burgeoning new genre that by the turn of the century had come to be known as Americana. Three more well received studio albums would be released over the following decade culminating with ‘No Way There From Here’ in 2014 but since then barely a note has been heard from this Nashville born songbird, until now. So, the question is has the nine year hiatus enabled Cantrell to rediscover her mojo and deliver an album in keeping with that of her debut?
The initial seeds for ‘Just Like A Rose’ were planted in 2018 but by the time thoughts were turning to the recording studio the pandemic had already struck and all plans were put on hold. Up to this point the album had intended to be a celebration of the 20th anniversary of her debut with the idea of recording and releasing a series of singles in real time and though Cantrell was determined to push on with the project it was clear that the enforced restrictions and delays would inevitably change both the timeline and the shape of her plans.
Now one of the first things to strike you on this album is the producer, or should that read producers, for there is not one, not two, but in fact five different producers, recorded either in Nashville or New York City, for the eleven tracks on this album, each with their own set of musicians, surely a reflection of the times rather than for any creative benefit. Of these songs only one is a self penned number, despite the long period between albums, with the remaining tracks being either co-writes or cover versions. The opening two numbers are a collaboration with Mark Winchester whose previous work includes Randy Travis and Carlene Carter and both produced by Don Fleming. The first ‘Push The Swing’ is a joyous uptempo number full of pop sensibilities while Matt Spencer’s contributions on guitars and keyboards adds just enough of an edge to deflect from the slightly saccharine melody. The following number ‘Bide My Time’ written during the same productive afternoon has a distinctly traditional country feel about it with some fine Pedal steel playing from David Mansfield. The next two numbers were both produced by Rosie Flores and have a distinctly rockier feel to them. The first is a cover version of Amy Rigby’s ‘Brand New Eyes’ dedicated to the memory of Ronnie Spector replete with its female harmony vocals before the album’s title track ‘Just Like A Rose’, a co-write with the aforementioned Spencer and inspired by none other than Flores herself that really shifts the album up a few gears. Flores has assembled a fine cast of musicians here that include Kenny Vaughan on electric guitar as well as John McTigue on drums and together they help to deliver a real punch to this classic slice of americana. This is truly Cantrell at her very best.
Now it would be fair to say that Cantrell’s greatest strength lies in her voice, not particularly her range but rather the phrasing and timing which along with a certain purity enables her to inhabit a song in a way few of her peers can match allowing her to re-imagine and breath new life into tracks we may already be familiar with. A perfect case in point comes in the shape of ‘When The Roses Bloom Again’, the traditional song that Cantrell recorded and used as the title track for her sophomore album. This time the track is reinvented as a tragic duet with Cantrell’s gentle delivery supported by the rugged sagacious tones of Steve Earle, her the soft petals of the rose and he the jagged thorns, it is a perfect match. The track also benefits from some wonderful playing on the Uilleann Pipes from Ivan Goff while the addition of some muscular guitar lines from the genius that is Buddy Miller along with Mansfield who as well as producing this track also supplies some beautiful mandolin all help to create the ideal setting. This song has been recorded many times over the last hundred years but this may well be the defining version and certainly the zenith of this album. That’s not to suggest that it’s down hill from here, far from it, as songs such as the sole self penned number ‘Secret Language’ a beautifully intimate and melancholic track that begs the question, why only the one? while the closing number ‘AWB – Bless’ sees Cantrell express a rare moment of angst motivated by the mid-term elections back in 2018 and aimed in particular at the “angry white man” mentality and clearly show’s her capable of tackling social issues with an articulate maturity without losing site of her musical identity. Again, one can’t help but feel this would be an area she should mine more frequently.
So does this album knock the ball out of the park? Does it match the magic of her debut? Well in truth the answer is probably not, but it does come close and is certainly on a par with her most recent releases. The problem is that no matter how strong the material is in helping to navigate the obvious pitfalls a lack of cohesion still permeates, songs working well together in couplets but not as a complete set, an unfortunate inevitability, regardless of the quality of musicianship involved. That said it is fantastic to have Cantrell back and there are enough wonderful moments on ‘Just Like A Rose’ to keep her ardent fans happy while still attracting new converts and certainly wets the appetite for her up and coming shows.