Edith Frost is a Texan transplanted to Chicago; her records demonstrate that, while less can be more, a little more can be even better. The debut EP was culled from home-made solo four-track recordings that, while pleasant, fail to do justice to Frost’s splendid songs. Her writing is rooted in the country-western tradition, but with the addition of a thoroughly modern psychological sense.
Calling Over Time, masterfully produced by Rian Murphy with crucial contributions from most of the Drag City poker pool, is an achievement of a much higher order. The musicians bypass roots music conventions, juxtaposing unresolved keyboard drones and twangy guitars; their accompaniment pushes Frost to sing more expressively and lends her songs some much-needed shading.
Ancestors is more harrowing; though the EP is out of print, two of its three songs are available on a AIDS benefit comp; all three are moving testaments to Frost’s willingness to search inside for the external links that no longer connect. “When my ancestors come to meet me / Well I hope that they welcome me there / They’ll forgive me forgetting their names / When the place becomes too frightening.” Her voice is like an Appalachian warning alarm, fog enshrouded and moving cautiously through the hills and hollers, a voice that has lent able support to Gastr de Sol, the Mekons, Jim O’Rourke, Canasta and Sigmatropic, many of who would have reciprocated on her projects.
Telescopic, as befitting a production by Royal Trux, is knifeier and more doom-laden. Although her voice combines Connie Smith, Jenny Lewis and Sally Timms, here amidst the electrified folk (part Slint, part Palace), the plucky star establishes her career method: sneaky and firmly expressed plainsong. Among the resigned confessions that sparkle, the title song is the most indie and jagged, “Through the Trees” the most isolated and toxic, and “Light” features the greatest sense of loss, like wildflowers vanishing from the countryside.
With Frost back in the care of her best studio enhancer, Rian Murphy, the three songs of “Love Is Real” (shades of the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan Is Real”) are more straightforward, almost rollicking. While Frost’s machete-like acoustic guitar clears the field, Rick Rizzo of Eleventh Dream Day and Archer Prewitt (Coctails/Sea and Cake) provide able accompaniment.
On the intimate, orchestrated Wonder Wonder, Frost, guided by Murphy and helped by Steve Albini and various Drag City cohorts, is “a wanderin’ child / Goin’ right down / To the bottom of the basement.” There are more melodic compositions here, songs that instead of veering off target improvisationally actually aim straight into the heart of the heart of the country. She constantly breathes new life into shopworn figures (isolated, desirous lonelyhearts, nature overpopulated with machines) by taking chances with her delivery. A listing of the highlights also celebrates her elemental self-paralysis: “Who,” “Dreamers,” “Further,” “The Fear” and “Honey Please.” Music from the high priestess of loneliness.
The Internet-only Demos contains passionate covers of Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman, an almost perfectly hushed version of “Wonder Wonder” and the touching and mysterious “On Hold.” That these extraordinarily reverential songs need to be released in this fashion is both a pox on record companies and a celebration of Frost’s inexorable need to share her stylish marginality.
It took several years, but the magisterial It’s a Game makes the silence tolerable. This is a solemn, religious outpouring of trumped-up hope with thrilling textures of splashy, self-indulgent intensity. A large cast of Chicago scenesters raise the roof on the brooding atmospherics. The fact that this rough-and-ready torch singing is readily identifiable as quintessentially American is a measure of its success. Guilt, pain, love and death all travel through this imagistically rich and musically de-veined landscape. This is rich music, echoing a low and shattered life occupied with redemption through personal art.