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KATHLEEN EDWARDS (Buy CDs by this artist)
Building 55 EP (self-released) 1999
Failer (Zoë) 2003
Live at the Bowery Ballroom EP (Zoë) 2004
Back to Me (Zoë) 2005

Kathleen Edwards insists that her primary influences are Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco, and that any resemblance to Lucinda Williams is purely coincidental. If true, it's quite a coincidence that the Ottawa native would develop the exact same overdone, Southern hick drawl that Williams has annoyingly sported in order to aid the uninitiated in discerning her from Sheryl Crow. (To be fair, it comes and goes, suggesting that Edwards is "in character" on several songs). Edwards also has the eye for detail, talent for metaphor and ease with memorable hooks that marks Williams' (and Mann's) best work. Pleasantly absent is the self- satisfied pretension that has wormed its way into Williams' music since her coronation as a capital-g Genius: fans who loved Sweet Old World and Lucinda Williams but have been put off by everything since will likely swoon over Failer.

That said, Edwards displays enough talent and charisma on her debut long player to suggest that, as her career progresses, questions of influence will fade and Edwards will no longer be looked at as the Joe Jackson to Williams' Elvis Costello. Failer frontloads its two best songs, and they're beauts — the hook-laden "Six O'Clock News" and "One More Song the Radio Won't Like" showcase Edwards' considerable strengths as a writer and vocalist (she's also an accomplished violinist). The songs are as good as any modern country rock can be expected to be. Those two would be worth the price of admission, but the rest of the album is nearly as good, as it veers from upbeat country rock to sad, acoustic laments. Highlights along the way are "The Lone Wolf," "Sweet Little Duck" and the romance of "Hockey Skates." With work this strong, Edwards will not long labor in the shadows of others.

Live at the Bowery Ballroom is an EP recorded live in New York; it contains versions of "National Steel," "Hockey Skates" and the non-LP "Money Talks," plus the videos for "Six O'Clock News" and "One More Song the Radio Won't Like."

Edwards steps firmly out of any artistic shadow with Back to Me. She pours herself into an album's worth of excellent songs performed with gusto. "In State" is a love-among-criminals tale that works as a companion piece to Failer's "Six O'Clock News." The title track and "What Are You Waiting For" are full-throttle rockers, while "Pink Emerson Radio" is a lovely, wistful ballad. Subdued horns appear on "Somewhere Else," adding one more element to an album that succeeds at everything it attempts. Back to Me confirms Edwards as a major artist in the making.

[Brad Reno]