All the ingredients seem to be in place for Welder to be Elizabeth Cook’s breakthrough album: she’s in fine voice, and producer Don Was has brought the best out of a hand-picked collection of musicians. Most important of all, Cook has written some great songs, demonstrating the rare gift of being able to switch seamlessly from songs that make you laugh to songs that make you cry, in a way that is reminiscent of John Prine.
Was has aptly summed up Cook as deeply rooted in country traditions, yet hip, smart and intelligent. From the opening track, with a wonderful massed string arrangement, and Cook sounding a little like Dolly Parton, it’s clear that they’ve created something special.
The pick of the lighter songs is “El Camino”, about a 70s-throwback boyfriend who wears psychedelic shirts, sports a mullet and drives a 1972 El Camino: I told him your car is creepy, man and not in a gangsta kinda way but in a perv kinda way. “Snake In The Bed” is catchy to the point of being annoying. “Yes To Booty” hides a serious point about a man who wants sex after having a 12 pack of beer, with Cook urging him to say no to beer, and yes to booty. This track hits the one false note on the whole album, featuring a yee-hah male chorus that sounds just a bit too contrived. (Having said that, this may be the song with the best chance of being a mainstream country hit.)
But Cook does sad songs too, as well if not better. “Heroin Addict Sister” has observations that ring true to anyone who’s ever had contact with addictive behaviour, and also shows off her slightly offbeat lyrical observations. On “Mama’s Funeral”, everyone takes a little piece of the pain and eases the load. “Girlfriend Tonight” is a heartbreaking song about a woman who wants to recapture with her husband the magic they had before they were married: I slid on my tightest pair of jeans, Combed my hair like it was 1983/ Honey I know that I am just your wife, But I wanna be your girlfriend tonight.
Cook has wisely supplemented her own songs with a handful of songs from other writers, so the quality doesn’t let up. The remarkable thing about the cover versions is that they blend in so well that if you don’t know the originals, you wouldn’t easily distinguish them from her own songs. “Not California” by Dan Messe starts out in downbeat style before building to a big climax. The original version by Hem is worth tracking down, and this version is equally good. “Blackland Farmer” is a song by Frankie Miller (Texan country musician from the early ‘60s, not the Scottish singer from the 1970s of the same name) and “I’m Beginning to Forget” was written by her late mother Joyce Cook. There’s also a couple of songs by her husband, and band member, Tim Carroll: “Follow You Like Smoke” is good, “Till Then” is even better, a lachrymose treatment of a song about waiting for something better to turn up.
This is an album for anyone who values high-quality songwriting. Touring in the UK for a large part of July, if Elizabeth Cook is half as good live as she is on Welder, she’ll be well worth seeing.
Elizabeth Cook on Backroads (including gig dates)