Kathleen Edwards had already exhibited a great deal of artistic confidence on her first record, Failer, but on Back to Me, she seems to have moved on to the next level.
Her songwriting remains sharp and melodic, exhibiting a Neil Young-like ability to write concise, flowing lyrics and express deep emotions via simple, effective melodies. Her singing, however, has taken especially great strides. Playing and singing live for the past year has done wonders for her technique, for her pitch is more accurate, her phrasing more engaging, and her timbre far more rich than before. Instrumentally she gathers yet another great band, this one spearheaded by one of Canada's great guitarists, Colin Cripps (formerly of Crash Vegas, now married to Edwards, and also the producer on this record), whose expansive, ringing tones and innovative parts add immensely to Edwards' palette. Like Jon Brion, Cripps has a knack for playing unusual yet perfectly comfortable parts within simple songs, augmenting but never interfering with the central melody or the vocals. Witness rock-out title track "Back to Me", where the electric guitar brilliantly emulates a fiddle, the simple, wailing slide guitar on "What Are You Waiting For?", and the guitar-as-string-section chimes of "Somewhere Else".
But as great the sonic backdrop is, Edwards remains the star, with a voice that's lonely, optimistic, worldly and vulnerable at the same time. Lead track "In State"'s restrained croon is magnetic, married to a gently insistent beat and Cripps' slithering guitar lines; the Byrds-like 12-string guitars and gentle balladry of "Summerlong" are seductive; "Copied Keys" mines one of Edwards' (and Neil Young's) favourite themes, wanderlust, backed by a naked, picked acoustic guitar line and elemental string and slide parts; "What Are You Waiting For?" is the best uptempo track, with its heartbroken guitar hook and Edwards' soulful singing. But the best track, hands down, is "Pink Emerson Radio", a spacious ballad where Edwards' voice is simply angelic, hitting a wrenching high range she's never explored, and a sad melody that cuts straight to the heart. The song also features her best lyrics to date, a collage of imagery linked by the heartbreak of abandonment -- easily the best entry in Edwards' already impressive songbook.
If you liked Failer, you're likely to have grabbed this record already without having heard a note. This record is essential listening for anyone interested in rock, folk, or country styles; even if you're not, give it a chance and you'll find some of the most emotionally resonant songwriting, singing and playing around.