Kathleen Edwards, ‘Voyageur’
Her songs have generally been outside herself, but Kathleen Edwards isn’t writing about other people anymore. She’s writing about herself. “Voyageur” is the Canadian alt-folkie’s most personal work, a 10-song musical catharsis after the tumultuous end of a five-year marriage. For all the doubt, soul-searching and heart-shattering sadness, though, it’s off to a surprisingly carefree start: “I’m moving to America,” she asserts – following it with the punch line: “It’s an empty threat.” Her wingman/new boyfriend, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, adds just enough of his trademark soft-rock euphoria to shake up Edwards’ girl-with-guitar sound. Plainspoken and brutally honest, the words, however, are all Edwards – regrettably recalling her wedding day (dire “Pink Champagne”), seeking solace (sprawling beauty “A Soft Place to Land”) and rebounding on the redemptive rocker “Change the Sheets.” Her fragile drawl whirls into a mesmerizing dream that’s really more of a nightmare on the hauntingly solemn “House Full of Empty Rooms,” a standout so in touch with its feelings of uncertainty and isolation that it could’ve only been written in the midst of her own hell. She picks herself back up on ’90s-esque “Sidecar,” a buzzy breather that’s uniquely hopeful and upbeat. Simple and direct, working in context of the rest of the downer album with that ditty, is all Edwards needs to be. That straightforward voice, in every sense, is what makes “Voyageur” an insightful and fulfilling journey. Grade: B+
‘Joyful Noise’ soundtrack
God and “Glee” walk into a recording studio and… no, it’s not a joke. It’s “Joyful Noise,” the churchy musical that’s about as campy as pitching a tent. Speaking of tents, it stars Dolly Parton, a good enough reason to invest in this gospel lovers’ gay dream come true. The other? Queen Latifah, turning a soulful, if short, take on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” during the otherwise hilariously cornball mash-up “Higher Medley” that also replaces Usher’s sexisms with call-outs to the Father. Together, the divas vocally throw down on the uplifting love-is-all “Not Enough,” a choir-lifted whopper that wouldn’t sound out of place in a “Sister Act” movie. To cover its bases, like the country crowd that Parton pulls, the legend does “From Here to the Moon and Back,” a stripped-down orchestral charmer, with Kris Kristofferson. It’s a fine song that’s basically a more subdued “I Will Always Love You.” On “In Love,” Kirk Franklin preaches to the choir, literally, and Latifah’s “Fix Me Jesus” is one of her most understated performances ever. The rest just feels like “Glee” in God’s house: bombast nearly butchers the end of “Maybe I’m Amazed” and Nickelodeon star Keke Palmer does a decent but forgettable job with her Disney-fed rendition of “Man in the Mirror.” The music from “Joyful Noise” isn’t nearly as sinfully bad as the movie is said to be. What does that mean? You can listen and not go to confession the next day. Grade: B-
Imperial Teen, ‘Feel the Sound’
Such a breezy listen that it goes down too easy, the 16-year-old cult foursome – two of which are queer – pull together hum-worthy hooks on their first album in five years. Like Scissor Sisters for rock radio, the co-ed collective from San Francisco leans on chompy guitar riffs and enough melodic sing-alongs to write a book on the science of sound (see: 1999’s “Yoo Hoo,” used in “Jawbreaker”). Giddiness rides out “Runaway,” a mindless piece of illuminated pop; the rest follows similarly and sounds like more beguiling versions of songs by the Shins. The refrain during the last tune, a musically transcendental highlight, sums up the album best: “It’s overtaking, it’s overtaking us.”
First Aid Kit, ‘The Lion’s Roar’
Deep-rooted Americana from the depths of… Sweden? Besides a Stockholm nod, there’s nary a hint that this sibling act are from Robyn soil, especially when Johanna and Klara’s sophomore CD is back-roads folk with an affinity for the genre’s legends. Proof: “Emmylou,” a hat-tip to traditional tropes that also features an adorable refrain. And then there are those voices, instruments that recall the greats in how enchantingly throwback they are. “To a Poet” works into a mesmerizing chorus that’s pure country heartbreak, harmonized beautifully in a high-sung lament. Handclaps and horns round out this gem of an album on the boisterous hootenanny “King of the World” – and if anyone rules the world this year, let’s hope it’s First Aid Kit.