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Cantrell lets songs speak for themselves

Laura Cantrell is a modern relic, a young woman with softly waving hair and red lipstick who sings train songs in a pure, pretty alto. At the Paradise Lounge on Thursday, the Nashville-bred New Yorker was miked for a bone-dry sound, which played up her plainness and evoked a simpler time -- before reverb and stylists arrived to distract us from whiskey and the washing. Cantrell dreams of those days. Her tight, gentle set alternated country classics with winsome originals for 75 lovely, lulling minutes.

Cantrell doesn't sell songs, she presents them -- barely adorned, simply stated -- with the collective understanding that a good chord change and some careful words require no fancy wrapping. So it was with ''Poor Ellen Smith," a murder ballad that's been covered by everyone from the Kingston Trio to Neko Case but in Cantrell's hands sounded as it might have on a cabin porch 100 years ago. It's no wonder Garrison Keillor chose her, and she chose this song, to perform on ''A Prairie Home Companion" last month.

Standing stock still at the microphone, a smile the only tool in her box of stage antics, Cantrell sang a pair of New York tunes -- her own ''Khaki & Corduroy" and Emily Spray's ''14th Street," both from her latest album, ''Humming by the Flowered Vine" -- and an unreleased, early Lucinda Williams song called ''Letters." She warmed up for tonight's ''Nebraska" Project concert at New York's World Financial Center Winter Garden with her version of Springsteen's ''Used Cars." Cantrell pronounced the Boss an unlikely artist for her to cover, but her gracious, unflinching interpretation proved them kindred spirits.

It also showcased Cantrell's trio: Boston-based mandolinist Jimmy Ryan, acoustic and lap guitarist Mark Spencer, and upright bassist Jeremy Chatzky, who were quiet reminders that playing with a delicate touch, deftly, is a lot tougher than turning it up. With their warm support Cantrell shifted into a surprise gear, singing ''Yonder Comes a Freight Train," ''The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter," and ''Queen of the Coast" as if a light were suddenly switched on: brightening all her tones and making the spare stories seem, suddenly, much more complicated.

Cantrell returns to the Paradise Lounge Feb. 9.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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