This review was originally published at The 9513 in June 2010.
For longtime fans of Elizabeth Cook, her new album – the quirky grab bag Welder, released last month on Thirty One Tigers – may require a slight period of adjustment. Certainly, it’s a far cry from the polished Dolly-meets-Loretta throwback sound she debuted with a decade ago. In more recent Cook history, it’s a considerable leap beyond – but also, once you become acclimated, a natural outgrowth of – her work with producer Rodney Crowell on 2007’s Balls.
This time around, Don Was fills the producer seat. Cook met him through Todd Snider, whose influence seems in evidence on the punchline-packed talking blues of “El Camino.” There, Cook tosses off an uproarious succession of lines like “I told him ‘Your car is creepy, man/And not in a gangster kind of way/But in a perv kind of way’” that make “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman,” her previous high mark for this sort of playfulness, sound downright tame.
Unfortunately, this strongest yet emergence of Cook’s own peculiar writing and singing voice is accompanied by a sometimes distracting lack of focus. For every smooth transition – as from the carefully-drawn vignette of “Mama’s Funeral” to lovely country ballad “I’m Beginning to Forget,” a song written by Cook’s late mother and affectionately sung with Crowell – there’s another that will leave you scratching your head. That’s certainly the case when Cook moves from stark showpiece “Heroin Addict Sister” into goofy throwaway “Yes to Booty,” a discordant combination of Loretta Lynn ultimatum and gimmicky Jimmy Buffett singalong that’s all the more jarring for coming on the heels of the album’s most raw and serious moment.
Contrary to the metaphor of the album’s title, Cook’s diverse interests aren’t exactly fused together into a coherent whole: they’re just sort of thrown next to each other, leaving it up to listeners to figure out how to incorporate all these twists and turns into a new, revised understanding of the artist. Much of the welding is left up to listeners.
If you’d like, you can judge Cook by the company she keeps. Besides Crowell, she’s joined by Buddy Miller (the funky Appalachian jangle of “All the Time”) and Dwight Yoakam (the straight-up honky tonk of “I’ll Never Know”). Guitarist husband Tim Carroll can be heard throughout, and is the subject of his own character sketch in “Rock N Roll Man.” As a songwriter, he contributes two songs, groovy slow-burners “Follow You Like Smoke” and “Til Then.” Neither sounds like anything Cook would have written on her own, which is either good or bad depending on how you feel about the continued expansion of her sound.
The best window into the competing, if not entirely incompatible, impulses working on Cook here is in the two cover songs. There’s NYC indie folk-rock band Hem’s “Not California,” a power ballad that finds Cook howling feelings of dislocation and longing across a mountainous string section. Then there’s Frankie Miller’s 1959 hit “Blackland Farmer,” a track nestled so deeply in country tradition that I hadn’t even heard of it until Cook brought it to my attention. Complete with percussion that sounds like shovel hitting dirt and a vocal that digs deep into blackland soul, the track is one of several album highlights.
As revealed on recent works with Snider and Kris Kristofferson, Don Was’ greatest strength as producer might be his ability to stand back and let artists be fully themselves. To the extent that Was captures the essence of Cook at this stage in her development, the truth revealed about her is this: she’s sort of all over the place, but talented enough that you can be sure of a great show as she continues to figure herself out.