Laura Cantrell’s Trains and Boats and Planes is a concept album built around the famous Burt Bacharach tune that gives the album its name. Cantrell uses the conceit of travel to showcase her considerable vocal talents, offering intriguing renditions of songs from artists as varied as New Order and Merle Haggard. Almost every song here is carefully chosen and offers an excellent example of how even familiar pieces of music can grow change with interpretation.
Among the strongest cuts on Trains and Boats and Planes are those that come from Cantrell’s country background. She faithfully renders “Howard Hughes Blues” by John Hartford, adding only a few instrumental embellishments and her more classically pretty voice to the original arrangement. Cantrell does similarly well with “Silver Wings” by Merle Haggard and Roger Miller’s “Train of Life,” adding a woman’s gentle touch to the troubadours’ songs. Though she shows a deft hand with country, Cantrell also does well with “Love Vigilantes," originally by New Order. This song undergoes a wholesale change from its original version, but Cantrell is able to remake the song to seamlessly fit her musical vocabulary.
The one misstep on Trains and Boats and Planes is the inclusion of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by Canadian singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. While Cantrell’s version is as at least as listenable as the original, the song is Lightfoot’s signature. Cantrell is able to make the other songs on the album partly her own; she never fully succeeds with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” After making such careful choices with the other songs on the album, it seems that she could have found something less familiar about a boat.
Included as a bonus on with Trains and Boats and Planes are three travel songs from Cantrell’s previous albums. “Roll Truck Roll,” “Big Wheel,” and “Yonder Comes a Freight Train” are all upbeat numbers with a more traditional bluegrass sound. The more polished and layered sound of the covers indicates Cantrell is evolving as a musician. Trains and Boats and Planes shows her using this sound to make magic with the others’ material; hopefully a collection of originals is soon to follow.