Being blessed an alt-country songstress must be as endlessly tiresome as being Cher's plastic surgeon. You have to compete with gusto as genuine as the impossibly bewitching Neko Case and pop-country schmaltz like 2001 Best New Artist Grammy winner I Am Shelby Lynne (and I've been around since 1989). No better is being deemed a '90s female singer-songwriter, a tag that lassos any sort of whirly woman from Liz Phair to Tori Amos to Ani DiFranco to Kristen Hersh to Cat Power.
It's got to make a gal feel like exploring another career that values personal expression so highly, like kilt knitting. Instead of picking up needles and yarn to darn, Edith Frost, a former Texan now living in Chicago, realized the only way to transcend the tried and trite spite of rock-crit smiting was always to leave them guessing. Aided by Gastr Del Sol mates Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs, Frost unfurled a stark spark with 1997's Calling Over Time. This moody delicacy of down-tempo introspection had young men who bow at the altar of Will Oldham's Palace calling her indie rock's creepy country female version of the same.
Not one to let a good false pretense go to waste, the Chicago cowgirl got together with some different members of the Chi-town elite under the production eye of former Royal Truxians Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema to concoct a fiery, tangled-up-in-blues psych-folk jam with 1999's Telescopic. Skipping from fuzz-toned jangles to luminous laments, Telescopic was a Basement Tapes-styled road to nowhere that made the girls who rock and the boys who love them shimmy inside their Goodwill button-fly jeans hunting for the right accolades to bestow upon her.
With her latest, the Steve Albini-engineered Wonder Wonder, Frost performs the same sort of cabaret gamble as Tom Waits, another holy roller who's bounced around genres without ever having to settle for only one. Reminiscent of Swordfishtrombones, it combines idiosyncratic instrumental arrangements with poetic word play that suits Frost's casual but evocative phrasing. Much as Waits' deep bellow hovers between a baritone and bass bombast, Frost flirts at the fringes of alto and soprano dreaminess, which gives her readings of potentially sappy lines like "Everyone I know reminds me of someone down in Texas/And every strip mall on the highway reminds me of my home," in "Cars and Parties," a bittersweet kiss.
Elsewhere, she flaunts her vocal control over a jaunty, spare guitar line and percussion thunderclap on "Who," where she whisper-stretches the opening "don'ts" in "Don't encourage me/Don't do anything" into reflective pauses before finishing the lines in low-register vibrato. Throughout, what's immediately recognizable is Wonder's jovial spirit, less about love lost than looking ahead.
Of course, by refusing to be either alt-country or pop-rock, Frost has furrowed herself into genre-free originality that may get her overlooked. But for those in favor of baroque, delicate songcraft, it's a fine show indeed.
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