Carolyn Wonderland

SXSW Picks 2 Click 2008

Carolyn Wonderland
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Miss Understood. Clever title that, Carolyn Wonderland's rock-and-blues-drenched seventh CD, full of pun but not much truth: Wonderland is anything but misunderstood. With Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson as producer and guide, the operative word seems to be "luxury."

"The luxury of time!" Wonderland affirms. "Getting to record something and listening to it a month later when I could change my mind! We also had enough time to get an ideal stable of players. If we'd only had a couple of weeks to do it, there's no way we could have gotten Tosca [String Quartet]. It was cool to have the luxury to do these songs with different musicians, too, to say, 'That ground's already been covered; let's go here in this song.'"

Wonderland's voice is effusive and full of the girlish enthusiasm her name suggests. As a veteran of both Houston's and Austin's scenes, she's hardly an up-and-comer, but armed with the mighty one-two punch of Miss Understood, her star's headed north. Take, for instance, the fact that she can thank Bob Dylan for her producer. The Great God of Songwriters, in town for a show at the Backyard in 2005, had lunch with Benson wherein he asked the local swingman – "out of the blue" – about Wonderland. Benson didn't have any answers but set about getting some.

"It's almost like I need to tell [Dylan] thanks twice, because I might never had gotten to make this record [with Benson] if he hadn't called," marvels Wonderland.

The gritty singer first crashed the party as a teenager in 1980s Houston. She and her exuberant Imperial Monkeys started stealing the top Houston Press Music Awards with blues-rock that spun off into country, surf, jazz, zydeco, and any other direction it chose. After she closed the cage on the Monkeys and relocated to new millennial Austin, she refocused her efforts as a frontperson, underlining luxurious vocals with fine guitar work, trumpet, and piano playing, as well as the remarkable ability to whistle on key.

Along the way, her songwriting also developed a sharper edge that redefined her style. It's an element on display in Miss Understood, not only with co-writers Ray Benson and Eldridge Goins and her own compositions but in the potent choices in cover songs from Bruce Robison ("Bad Girl Blues"), J.J. Cale ("Trouble in the City"), Terri Hendrix ("I Found the Lions," "Throw My Love"), and even Rick Derringer ("Still Alive and Well"). It's Wonderland's grab of that Johnny Winter classic that stamps "Texas" across Miss Understood.

"Some of my songs I've had for a long time and played live, but playing too many of my own songs, I worry I stay in too much of a box. I like to explore other things and not be boring. Getting to use other folks' songs was instrumental [in this record], and having Ray's collection was a beautiful thing. It was amazing to go in with a healthy amount of respect for the song and have them come out the way I intended."

That's luxury.

SXSW showcase: Saturday, March 15, 12mid @ Antone's

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