"I'm under city lights, and it's all right," Laura Cantrell sings in one of the 12 deceptively lovely songs on No Way There From Here — her first album, besides a 2011 Kitty Wells tribute, in nine years. The line is about a love that thrives in spite of occasional separation; its story is typical of Cantrell's wry, wise viewpoint on feminine maturity. But it also says something about this Queens-based lover of vintage Nashville sounds. Cantrell, who was born in Tennessee, is one of the stylists who defined Americana music as we now know it when she first emerged in 2000; but she's an urbanite, too, interested in expressing how the simple life gets thornier when your country dreams must adapt to the possibilities and problems of life in a metropolis.
No Way There From Here can fairly be described as "deceptively lovely" because Cantrell's music, based in gleaming classic-pop arrangements that highlight her reedy soprano the way a 1950s cocktail dress might feature silver thread, may strike listeners as simply pretty at first. Working with a crew of top-shelf collaborators from her two hometowns (and elsewhere, as Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell co-writes one song), Cantrell and co-producer Mark Nevers provide everything a fan of the countrypolitan songbook could desire: weeping-willow guitar lines and witty rejoinders from fiddle or banjo, delicate harmonies, the soft affect of a brush on a cymbal. Cantrell sings conversationally, as if she's continually making over the stories she tells so that each word hits home. At times, as in the hymn-like Franklin Bruno co-write "Someday Sparrow" or the cowboy ballad "Letter She Sent," she tempts the listener to sink into a gauzy reverie of pure pleasure. But to do so would be to miss what she's clearly saying.
What she's saying is that life is good but tricky, especially for a woman in her 40s with ambition to go with her need to love and tend to her friends and family. Not necessarily autobiographical, Cantrell's writing on No Way There From Here is still personal; she finds the most telling private moments in the days and nights of her characters and lays them out simply, with love. "All the girls are complicated," she declares in the album's funny opening track; Cantrell co-wrote the song with Amy Allison, another veteran of years on small New York nightclub stages. Expressing fond frustration toward neurotic friends in that song, or trying to chip away at a partner's defenses in "Glass Armour," or pondering how would-be sweethearts read and miss each other's signals in "Barely Said a Thing," Cantrell demands that we see the beauty in encounters that pass barely noticed in the course of a day.
It's a message other women have offered in the past: With No Way There From Here, Cantrell matches the work of other songwriters who specialize in the small detail, from Kelly Willis to Amy Rigby to Rosanne Cash. Give this album some time, the way Cantrell did in making it. It comes on slowly and sticks around.