Elizabeth Cook: “Welder”

Nashville malcontent Elizabeth Cook calls her new album Welder, a title she explains by noting that a welder is someone who fuses together different, separate elements into something united and whole. It’s a fitting image for Cook, a rising star whose seemingly split personas unite to form one of country music’s most interesting and complex figures– and who brings every side of her muse to bear on Welder more than on any previous album. This, after all, is a woman who hosts a country music program on Sirius Radio, and who still sings regularly at the Grand Old Opry; she’s also a woman whose last album, Balls, was simply too daring and unconventional for Nashville to embrace, leading it to be sounding rejected by country stations all over.

I can’t imagine Welder making any more of an impact on the radio, at least not the mainstream stations; the thing with Cook, though, is that while some artists simply seem incapable of being anything other than doggedly idiosyncratic, she makes it pretty evident that she could be a big country music star if she really wanted to. She’s got the chops, both as a singer and a songwriter, and she’s got the production pedigree behind her; Balls was produced by Rodney Crowell, and this one by Don Was. But what’s more than that, Cook has an understanding of country music past and present that she floats across this album, effortlessly and teasingly, as if to taunt the Nashville machine by showing how huge she could be if she were only willing to play by their rules.

Certainly, Nashville wouldn’t find anything to complain about with the high-and-lonesome boogie of “All the Time”– except, perhaps, for its lack of polish, its roots in traditional mountain music and bluegrass idioms more than anything resembling mainstream, pop-inflected country. Still, the melody and lyric are indelible, as is the harmony vocal from one Buddy Miller. There’s also “I’ll Never Know,” a country-soul weeper with Dwight Yoakam, and a cover of Frankie Miller’s hillbilly-gospel tune “Blackland Farmer.” Cook’s late mother wrote “I’m Beginning to Forget,” a swaying break-up ballad that really could be a fit for an artist more willing to step into Nashville’s box and roll over.

And then there’s “Girlfriend Tonight.” This is a tune that at first resembles everything that’s big on country radio right now, unitl you realize just how better at it Cook is than anyone else. One would almost call it sentimental, but the emotion is earned; it’s a ballad that hinges on a bit of wordplay, but rather than being corny or cutesy, the song is quietly devastating. The narrator is singing to her man about not feeling sexy or physically attractive, and the sleight of hand comes when we find that she’s actually his wife– but she wants to be his “girlfriend tonight,” a recipient of romance and sexual desire. There is an element of nostalgia here, but also sharply-penned lyrics that bypass psychoanalysis and go straight to the song’s emotional core. It’s terrific.

And so is the rest of the album– the stuff that’s a lot harder to pin to country music standards. The immediate standout is “El Camino,” a deadpan talking blues set over a Stonesy riff and a boogie-woogie beat that has little to do with where Nashville is in 2010. It’s a hilarious song about a pervy redneck cruising for chicks, and he finds himself on the receiving end of some brutal sarcasm from Cook. The song’s companion piece is the strutting “Rock and Roll Man,” a song that pulls off the neat trick of depicting a total loser while showing– honestly– why some women might be attracted to him. Cook isn’t one of them, though, and, again, her perceptive eye for detail enlivens the song with devilish wit.

On paper these sound like novelty songs, almost, except they’re so keenly observed– and so smartly dressed in vintage country and rock traditions– that they are nothing if not evidence of Cook’s remarkable songwriting ability. The same could be said of the jokey little honky tonk number “Snake in the Bed,” a song that might be slight were it not so fun; in a different league altogether, though, are a pair of shattering, personal ballads whose titles tell you everything you need to know: “Heroin Addict Sister” and “Mama’s Funeral.” Here, the album finds its beating heart, and Cook reveals herself to be miles ahead of all the other country music women whose rough-and-tumble personas eventually dissolve into schtick. She’s the real deal, something that these two wrenching songs makes perfectly evident.

If there’s any criticism to be found here, it’s that Cook stretches her eclecticism too far on a cover of Hem’s “Not California,” a fine performance that simply seems out of place here; but hey, when’s the last time a country album stumbled because it showed too much ambition? What’s important here is that Elizabeth Cook stands way out from the pack as a country singer and songwriter of restless creativity and feisty spirit; her more aggressive moments resemble Miranda Lambert and her already-classic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but Cook delivers something even more complex and fully-realized, something that never seems like a persona or a shtick, but simply the work of a real, honest, endlessly complicated woman with a story to tell, and the talent to tell it in spades.

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