In the late ’80s, former session singer Eddi Reader provided the bubbly Scottish voice for the alluring jazz-pop of Fairground Attraction (“Perfect” being that outfit’s most enduring song). The band never was on solid ground, though, and the Glaswegian prudently launched a solo career after one neat album. (Guitarist Mark Nevin also did well for himself following the group’s dissolution: he became an important collaborator for Kirsty MacColl and Morrissey.)
Reader’s solo debut has the gossamer translucence of morning dew. Moving on organically from Fairground Attraction, the acoustic Patron Saints (Kirsty’s guitar-playing brother Neill MacColl, double-bassist Phil Sterioulos, drummer Roy Dodd and sit-in pianist Jools Holland) provide unhurried, fat-free arrangements — gentle, lovely, pristine — to which Reader sparingly applies her voice. Rather than pin down a vocal style, she breezes around Fred Neil’s “Dolphins” and “That’s Fair” like Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays, sweeps like Joni Mitchell through an imaginative recasting of the traditional “The Blacksmith,” invests John Prine’s sappy “Hello in There” with idiosyncratic phrasing (getting louder at the end of each line) borrowed from Rickie Lee Jones and sounds a quiet country note in Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues.” A fascinating hybrid of folk tradition, contemporary stylishness and Shaker simplicity.
Her self-titled second album tightens the stylistic focus and ups the commercial stakes, locating a midpoint between old Joni Mitchell records and the glib sentimental veneer of new country — sacrificing Mirmama‘s abundant charm in the process. Reader remains an extraordinary singer, comfortably familiar with her abilities, but the album is a victim of the material’s intemperate emotional outpourings. Mark Nevin wrote the bulk of the songs and plays guitar; k.d. lang associate Greg Penny produced, using bassist David Piltch from the Canadian’s company. Nevin’s “The Right Place” puts some nice touches on a post-breakup rebirth, and Boo Hewerdine’s sardonic “Joke (I’m Laughing)” seethes with quiet disdain, but what possible need is there for another literal “Dear John” song? The best numbers are those in which Reader had a compositional hand: “Wonderful Lie,” a collaboration with Hewerdine, finds an easy groove and fills it with a dreamy reminiscence. Eddi Reader is pretty and fine, but Eddi Reader needs more songs worth singing.