After 17 years in the music business, Janet Bean's debut album, Dragging Wonder Lake, is something of a revelation. Although she shared vocal and songwriting duties with her other two bands (Eleventh Dream Day and Freakwater), Dragging Wonder Lake showcases Bean's talents in a very different context and in full bloom in a way that may surprise people familiar with her other work. This album is musically a continuation of the "cosmic American music" pioneered by Gram Parsons and carried on by his protégée, Emmylou Harris; it's a sprawling amalgam of country and rock, with warm, organic production courtesy of John McEntire. There's weepy pedal steel on a few tracks, and the lap steel playing of John Spiegel strongly recalls David Lindley's work with Jackson Browne at times. Bandmembers Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and Jim Baker (piano) are best-known for their presence in the Chicago improv community, but prove here that they are more than capable of working in this idiom, as well as adding the odd touches that help ensure that this is no retro homage. Just check out the piano solo on Neil Young's "Soldier" or the cello breaks on "One Shot" and "Spout of Spite."
Bean explores themes of loss and resignation throughout the album without being overly melancholy. Her songwriting has really flowered. From the stark, intimate "Suddenly" to the ominous Western shuffle of "Cutters, Dealers, Cheaters" to the shimmering "The Bluebird's Spindle," there is a great deal of territory covered. There is also the added bite of two covers: the aforementioned "Soldier and Randy Newman's "The God Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," which is given a subtle musical menace lacking in Newman's version. All this leads up to the final track, "My Little Brigadoon," a bouncy rocker complete with "ba-ba-ba" backup vocals, which has something of the effect of emerging into bright sunlight after a long, dreamy slumber.
Dragging Wonder Lake is a remarkable debut that demonstrates Janet Bean has really come into her own as both a songwriter and vocalist. The band plays great, and McEntire's production is spot-on. Highly recommended.