Elizabeth Cook: More resolute, more vulnerable, still unflinchingly honest

Truth, Between The Sheets And Elsewhere
By David McGee

Elizabeth Cook
31 Tigers

The title of Elizabeth Cook’s welcome fifth album refers both to her father’s chosen profession (learned, according to the artist, “courtesy of the Atlanta Federal penitentiary”) and a personal transformation of her own (“melting and reforming” as puts it in those same notes). It’s hard to discern much difference in the artist here and the one we heard on her superb fourth album, Balls (source of her signature song to date, “It Takes Balls To Be A Woman”), produced by Rodney Crowell, but if it’s a matter of degrees it’s in the sound of an artist both more resolute and more vulnerable. Producer Don Was provides her a solid hard country soundscape, augmenting (or tempering, as the case may be) the basic band with affecting touches such as the Carol Lee Singers adding aching harmonies to heighten the yearning ambiance of Cook’s own languorous ballad, “Girlfriend Tonight,” or conversely, some fuzzed-out guitar and pounding rhythmic thrust to underpin her wry narration describing a certain unreconstructed “Rock n Roll Man” of her dreams, an irresistible sort who, for example, talks about Elvis “only in the Sun years.” Sometimes, of course, less is more, and so it is on “Heroin Addict Sister,” a truly wrenching four-minute chronicle of love and pain comingling to where one is indistinguishable from the other, that the band remains sotto voce, save for a stark, fingerpicked acoustic guitar that is the dominant, eerie embroidery on the track apart from Cook’s deceptively evenhanded vocal that barely manages to coat her anguish with a veneer of resigned acceptance.

Early Elizabeth Cook, ‘Love Makes You Do Stupid Things,’ live at Twangfest, St. Louis, MO, 2005

Welder may be named in part after her father, but it’s dedicated to her mother, who crossed over in 2008, and her passing is mourned in the impassioned but restrained “Mama’s Funeral,” which is both a celebration of the mother’s life, fond memories remaining, and the yin-yang of a ceremony in which “everybody took a piece of pain/and spread it around like summer rain” on the path to accepting her demise as fact. Cook’s vocal, measured but emotional, rises and falls with each new scene, as behind her the band settles into a slow country groove suitable for a reflective, tear-stained narrative, with tender, spare punctuations from a slide guitar sounding like muted weeping. Those who look to Cook for the ne plus ultra in real country heartbreak need only cue up an exquisite, churning sample of this sort in the form of “I’m Beginning to Forget,” as blue and forlorn a missive as any you’re likely to hear, spiced by steel and twang and some Floyd Cramer-like slip-note piano flourishes, with an added fillip of abject sorrow by way of Rodney Crowell’s harmony vocal. Its sequencing after “Mama’s Funeral” is likely no accident, given its composer credit: one Joyce Cook, Elizabeth’s late mother. Taking a Bakersfield detour, Cook enlists Dwight Yoakam on one of her co-writes, the thumping “I’ll Never Know,” a fevered outpouring of sensual longing framed in a stomping mesh of fiddle, steel, twang and crying vocals in one of the most chemically robust duet performances in recent memories. (Man, if duet albums were still in style, Cook and Yoakam could hit one way out of the park. No charge for this suggestion.) For sheer good fun, check out the party hearty “Yes To Booty,” a rather self-explanatory title for a track that simulates a rowdy honky tonk atmosphere and offers the altogether sensible advice to “say no to beer and say yes to booty” in what is the single most unusual anti-drinking song of our time, and maybe ever. Whether kicking up her heels or engaging in deeply moving personal reflections, Cook, whose voice is an intriguing blend of Deana Carter’s smoky sensuality and Dolly Parton’s mountain spunk, sells these songs thoroughly. No matter the subject, you believe her. That kind of truth is hard to come by, and demands to be treasured.

Welder is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024