Judith Edelman

Drama Queen
(Compass)

Edelman's third release is a wondrous, acoustic collection, packed with unflinching accounts of adult life that carry the Americana form to new (and welcome) terrain. With songs that run from spare laments to giddy, unplugged anthems, Edelman's neo-folk sound blends threads of traditional Appalachian and Irish music with contemporary songwriter fare. Backed by a string of new-grass heavies (including Denver's Tim O'Brien), Edelman's approach is a pleasure, and the recommendable points of Dramaare many.

First is her voice, a butterfly timbre that moves from joyous giggles to snide sneers, hitting every emotion in between along the way. At times her vocals call to mind a more (dare we say it?) mature Alanis Morrisette. But that comparison ends with Edelman's soft, fragile compositions and probing lyrics, which stretch from cryptic images swollen with details to rich narratives. When Edelman stomps lightly into up-tempo terrain in "Good Day, There it Goes," keening fiddles and nimbly plucked arpeggios provide a soundtrack to a fast-fading life. "Don't Open the Door" is a stripped-down "Sultans of Swing"-style tale in which the song's unsuccessful suitor warns her target, "If you could leave this town and your cheerleading squad/I could introduce you a darker side of God." Pow! In "Factory Men," shift-workers can punch the clock but can't fill the holes in their home lives, and their machinery's "hum won't shield me from a sad domestic scene." They beg their spouses to "stay with me, try again/And save me from these things they say of factory men." Much of this hard folk benefits from clever couplets that, thankfully, keep these heavy subjects from becoming tedious.

Edelman is at her best when she slows down the surveillance tapes for slow-motion, first-person jabs at the jugular. "Come July" hangs on a deceptive playground melody but quickly reveals a tale of a deserted mother and child: "The frying pan is empty/The stove's always cold/A restless man is hard to hold," the tune's protagonist sings. But hopefully, she notes, as O'Brien's fiddle moans in the background, "we'll have watermelon come July." On "Do I Shine," Edelman's gossamer voice breathes across another stark, crippling melody; her grim questions -- "Can angels sing with tied-up wings/Like we do through the night?" -- are held afloat by stately guitars and mandolins. In these moments, Edelman somehow packs the timeless ache and loss of the best bluegrass into songs gently placed in the 21st century. Her breathtaking, heartbreaking focus takes the disc's one cover ("Sailor Boy," a traditional Irish sea lament) to even deeper depths of despair. All of which leaves the listener with questions: How does one avoid falling apart at the microphone while singing such creations? And why does it feel so damn good to get lost in them over and over?

 
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