Though it might not be apparent to everyone, it makes perfect sense that Laura Cantrell is a radio deejay. For one, every one of her albums features a fine array of obscure covers, the kind that only a vinyl-collecting audiophile could possibly know about. And her songs, be they original or not, sound tailor-made for college radio listening. They’re the songs you fade into, as the upbeat power pop tunes before them drop in volume. More interesting than that, however, is despite playing what most would call “country,” they contain elements of many other styles. And, save for the six-minute “Old Downtown,” they’re all short enough to pack into an hour-long set with the occasional between-song commentary.
While Cantrell’s WFMU program typically features a blend of classic folk and roots music with lesser-known contemporary selections, the Matador-signed version of Radio Cantrell is the culmination of all of those sounds filtered through the Tennessee native’s sweetly soothing voice. It doesn’t hurt that here she has enlisted the aid of Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, former Yo La Tengo guitarist Dave Schramm and Tin Hat Trio’s Rob Burger among others on this set.
Humming By the Flowered Vine, like Cantrell’s previous outings, is split sixty-forty between covers and originals. But that fact shouldn’t deter listeners who prefer originals. The chances that you know any of these tracks are pretty slim. Furthermore, Cantrell sounds like she was born to sing them. “14th Street” is a pretty, fitting opener, as follower “What You Said” is a fun, bluegrass-influenced folker. During the chorus, Cantrell’s harmonizing with Mark Spencer is quite similar to that of Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary in their Whiskeytown days. Dave Schramm’s “And Still” is spare and stark in Cantrell’s hands, even with Calexico backing her. Their presence her is far less obvious than it was on Neko Case’s Blacklisted, which carried a hefty bit of the Arizona group’s Southwestern sound. Here, however, Cantrell is the one at the front of it all, commanding the song as if it were her own. And in this setting, it really is.
Though Cantrell’s originals are fewer in number, they make up several of the album’s highlights. “Khaki & Corduroy” is a slow, graceful reflection on being a Southerner in New York City. “California Rose” is an upbeat bluegrass song, similar to her take on “What You Said,” with no shortage of hooks or hand-clap-ability. Meanwhile, the heartbreakingly beautiful “Bees” is a minor-key ballad that sees Cantrell singing bleak lines that display death in sweetly beautiful verse: “My time is short now/I feel it coming/I see you darling in morning light.” And that six-minute closer, “Old Downtown,” is somewhat more upbeat, yet still shows off Cantrell’s knack for maintaining grace and aesthetics in any tempo or any volume.
Though I’ve never committed to listening to one of Cantrell’s WFMU programs, I can tell by the playlists alone that she’s got fine taste in music. In a way, Humming by the Flowered Vine is like her own personal performance of one of her archived shows. Though there are different styles and songs written by several different artists on this set, there’s a cohesive, seamless flow to the album that makes it ever-so enjoyable.
Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockerell – Begonias
Carolyn Mark – The Pros and Cons of Collaboration
Neko Case – The Virginian
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.