An appreciation of Elizabeth Cook, and her album Welder
Without question Elizabeth Cook is one of the smartest musicians I’ve interviewed over the last 30 years.* Cook’s fifth album, Welder, came out last week, produced by Don Was. I do not wish to play the critic’s game — I wish no longer to be a critic, and type quickly here so as to pretend to have won my amateur status back — but it is clearly her best work, and it’s all good, even the country album Hey Y’all that Atlantic reluctantly released in 2002, even the collection of demos she scraped together after that deal fell apart, called This Side of the Moon, on which my still-favorite song “Heather Are You With Me Tonight” appears (it’s a war song, not a protest song, not directly).
I begin with Ms. Cook’s intelligence because she sings with a giddy voice, and festoons her albums with clever songs that nudge up against novelty, like the title track to the Rodney Crowell-produced Balls. I lead with Ms. Cook’s intellect because she is a beautiful woman who sings with a deep country twang (deep enough to have put her on the Grand Ole Opry several hundred times, and probably to have kept her off country radio). I start with her smarts because they undergird everything she does (including, I suspect, the persona who appears on satellite radio, but I’ve not heard her show, more’s the pity).
And because Welder is the most difficult of things to pull off: a canny, multi-faceted album of country and rock and country-rock, 14 songs revolving around a closely-held theme of love in all the right and wrong ways. Giddy with joy, yes. And more, for her mother died and her sister’s a heroin addict and she finally married her guitar-slinging collaborator, Tim Carroll. Giddy with life, then, and knowing.
So, yes, it’s tempting to focus on “Yes To Booty” (“when you say no to beer/you say yes to booty”), or “Snake In The Bed” or “El Camino,” with Cook’s wryly hacked chords underpinning Cook’s silly love song. Or, on the flip side, to comment on the bravery of “Heroin Addict Sister” or “Mama’s Funeral.” Or her homage to Carroll, “Rock N Roll Man.”
Sing along, sure. The melodies ask for company. But take a moment to listen to how carefully the words are drawn, how certain the stories are told. How artfully she goes about sketching complicated life studies without ever losing her sense of humor, her innate kindness, nor her sense of a joyfully revealing detail. And, I think, without invading anybody’s privacy, not an easy thing to do with what may be confessional songs.
The songs aren’t all hers. “Not California” is a kind of power ballad, written by Don Messe & Gary Maurer. I tend not to like power ballads, and so suspect the hand of Don Was in this production because I’d rather not blame the artist, but no matter. She covers “Blackland Farmer,” and follows “Mama’s Funeral” with a song her mother wrote, “I’m Beginning To Forget.” (Which, incidentally, isn’t simply a kind gesture. It’s a great song, pure and simple, like all great songs are.) And Tim Carroll gets a couple cuts on his own considerable merits. I had to read the credits a half-dozen times to be convinced “Girlfriend Tonight” wasn’t a minor hit in the 1960s. Nope. Elizabeth Cook wrote it.
If, as we used to brag in the magazine days, you can judge an artist by the company she keeps, Cook’s guest duet partners/backing vocalists include Buddy Miller (on the stunning opening track, “All The Time”: listen to them hold those notes together), Rodney Crowell, and Dwight Yoakam. With the Opry’s Carol Lee Singers on a couple track.
All of which adds up to…I dunno, if we’re talking about the marketplace. She’s still playing one-off dates travelling in a panel van, best I know. Nobody in Nashville is cutting her songs, nor pretending they can make her a star. And it does absolutely no good for me to bay at the moon wildly that she should be, there there’s simply no reason at all she shouldn’t be, not even a good character flaw (unless being smart counts) to explain it. Just magic, sometimes.
What it adds up to is this: She’s good, and rewarding to listen to over and over again. Joy and pain play equal parts in her songs, in her voice, but it all comes from her heart without detouring into anything which might draw attention to the care with which the whole thing is pulled off.
And she keeps pulling the whole thing off, making records even though…even though it can’t be easy. It can’t be easy knowing exactly how good you are and having to struggle this much just to keep doing the work you’re meant to do, even though I suspect, as struggles go, this one ain’t bad. She’s got a good mate for the battle in Mr. Carroll, and more than enough sense to live within whatever their means prove to be.
That’s all the time I have. I can’t get past the fear that my job is to make you go buy this record, and, like all the times before, I have failed. But the failure is mine, not Ms. Cook’s. She’s all aces.
*OK, here’s the short list, assembled while driving around and not thinking too hard: Liz Phair, David Thomas, Chely Wright, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer (ah, young John Henry is so doomed to be an interesting and challenging child), maybe Chris Cornell, except he’s closer to being athlete smart, and probably Thom Yorke, except we only spent 15 minutes in a hotel room with his minder, a bandmate, and a documentary filmmaker, so that’s really no more than a guess.
I started a digression on the different ways female artists manifest their intelligence when being interviewed by male journalists, but there’s no way to do it without coming across as a sexist asshole. But there is a difference.