Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell present KORT: Invariable Heartache

Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell present KORT
Invariable Heartache
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: City Slang

If all covers albums sounded this good, they'd likely lose their stigma of being vanity projects or the byproducts of a band just fucking around because it's clean out of new material. A collaboration between Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and singer-songwriter Cortney Tidwell under the cutely-dubbed KORT moniker, Invariable Heartache is a respectfully understated homage to the Nashville-based Chart Records label. For Tidwell, the songs are literally part of her family's history; her grandfather, Slim Williamson, ran the label, her father handled its A&R and her mother was part of the label's artist roster. For Wagner, it's a chance to sing homespun lyrics that aren't coated in ambiguity; enjoy the simplicity of something like, "I'm blue as a bluebird/ With no song to sing," because stuff like that doesn't come out of Wagner's mouth all that often.

Invariable Heartache very well could have been a train wreck, with Tidwell's personal connections to the label causing the album to come across as overly worshipful and Wagner's "unique" vocals making the songs sound like little more than the latest Lambchop record. But for the most part the wheels stay on and there are no disasters and very few missteps among the 12 songs. The album favors country music's depressive side - plenty of lonesome, boozy, desperate, lovesick, jilted and otherwise distraught lovers here - and it's on such ballads like "Incredibly Lonely," "Eyes Look Away" and "She Came Around Last Night" where the two singers' contrasting voices (hers is clean, pure and pitch-perfect; Wagner's is...not) mesh well together. Tidwell brings a wounded-country-heart believability to the several songs she solos on, especially "He's Only a Memory Away," "I Can't Sleep With You" and the album-closing, grand weeper "Who's Gonna Love Me Now," though her vocals on "Yours Forever" lay on the woe-is-me misery too thickly. The duo's timing and the album's pace are integral, as both artists sprinkle in up-tempo, cheerful and sometimes humorous moments, particularly on "Let's Think About Where We're Going" - where a man and woman each vow to basically forget about the other's sordid pasts, sexual perversions and rampant promiscuity - and "Penetration," whose somewhat-bizarre arrangement makes it the oddest song included. It is not, as some may have hoped, a Stooges cover.

One obvious advantage Tidwell and Wagner have in reworking the songs on Invariable Heartache is that none of them are standards. Aside from perhaps "Picking Wild Mountain Berries," which treasured icon/butt-of-the-joke Conway Twitty made semi-famous, very little here will be familiar to listeners whose interest in country music doesn't extend past the late greats or today's current plague of pickup-truck-and-whiskey poseurs. The songs' obscurity makes it easy for a listener to not have any preconceived notions about what they "should" sound like; knowledge of the source material isn't a prerequisite to enjoying the album either.

Invariable Heartache is simply a consistently strong selection of cover songs that speaks to the quality of the material Chart Records released throughout the 1960s. A little bit of legwork to track down the label's originals comes highly recommended.

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