Why bother interviewing Edith Frost? After all, the 40-year-old singer-songwriter from Chicago already bares her soul and more on one of the most exhaustive online diaries offered by any artist, musical or otherwise. Go to EdithFrost.com, and you'll find daily updated accounts of her career in music, her weight, her hangovers, her baby pictures, unsent letters to childhood friends about her drug use and hair styles--even the precise date and time of her first ... um ... menses. You'll witness every piece of press written globally about her collected, dissected and occasionally corrected. I can try to do her justice in print, but trust me: the Edith Frost she wants you to know is out there in a bunch of ones and zeros. "I guess I'm kinda anal about gathering things," she humbly tells me in the understatement of the year.
Why bother writing about Edith Frost? After all, a legion of scenester music writers have already pigeonholed Frost's three excellent albums into a tight network of faux-mathematical equations meant to avoid any qualitative descriptions of the music. She's the alt.country Patsy Cline. The union of Nancy Griffith and the underground country rock group Freakwater. Liz Phair, Gillian Welch, Aimee Mann, Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd founder and famous acid casualty Syd Barrett also get whisked into the conversation. Artists like Frost, whose toes skim across a different musical genre pool with each new song on each new album, are a chance for writers to flex their muscles and show off their own CD collections. I'll try to rein in that urge, while admitting that my first impulse upon listening to Frost's 2001 release Wonder Wonder was to pen an e-mail saying I had "found" an artist who beautifully combined the deep voices and visionary arrangements of long-dead folk heroes Tim Buckley and Nico--also two of the most notorious heroin pincushions in the history of snob-rock. "Wow, that's nice," Frost replies to the analogy, "But I've always just been a pothead. Never got into the heavy stuff."
Why bother listening to Edith Frost? That's much easier to answer. First, that voice. It is not the type that would get her on American Idol--indeed, its human crackles and wavers might get her ridiculed by Simple Simon--but it is one of the most intricate and endearing on the contemporary musical landscape. When Frost sings low, as on the excellent title track of Wonder Wonder, she sounds as if her chin is buried in her chest, her eyes on her shoes. When she sings high, she exhales so much as to almost become inaudible. If this is rock music, it isn't the kind that is meant to overwhelm a listener or whip an audience into an emotional frenzy. It burrows into the skin, leaving a vague but lingering impression of something hovering between sadness and sarcasm.
Second, those arrangements. Frost's songwriting is bare bones, only encompassing herself, a guitar, a keyboard and piles of scribbled notes and phrases--what she calls "my snippets." But her producer Rian Murphy employs such a huge payroll of instruments and players on Wonder Wonder, I can't help but wonder wonder if they had to unionize. Strings, horns, clarinets, organs, wood blocks, cowbells and bass harmonicas all pop up decoratively throughout the album, turning slow country weepers into sultry torch songs and simple, childlike melodies into eerie adult nursery rhymes. If this is country music, it is country that can only come together in cramped urban settings on tight studio timelines. But with Frost's voice as the cork bobbing on the orchestral torrent, the result is accessible enough that you'll quickly find yourself burning copies for your parents as well as your friends. But I don't mean that as an insult; your parents are in dire need of music this good.
If the popular music hierarchy had anything to do with talent, Frost would be far more than an intellectual exercise for underground critics. As it is now, she laughs incredulously at the prospect of ever having a "hit," and rightly so. She is, and will probably remain, the kind of artist to fill the important niche of "someone whose record you put on for your friends, to laud it over them that you stumbled across her first." But for someone like Frost, a maniacal vinyl collector with over 15 feet of records lined up in her house, that kind of off-mainstream notoriety is the ultimate compliment. "I've always thought, CDs, they're OK," she explains, "but if I could put a needle down and hear my own voice coming out of the speaker, that would be the ultimate thrill of a lifetime. They can just toss CDs off, but a record ... that's the real deal."
Edith Frost with Manishevitz and Kris Doty, Sunday, December 5, 9 p.m., $5, Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 336-5034.