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Bonnie McKee’s American dream

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While all the rock cognoscenti were trying to figure out if they wanted to anoint Jack White as the Next Big Thing, or just slap his smug little face all the way back to Detroit, the kids were off reviving the moribund singer-songwriter genre. The past few years have seen the emergence of singer-songwriter voices that are angsty (David Gray), suave (John Mayer), polyglot (Jason Mraz), and indistinguishable from one another (Jack Johnson and Josh Kelly, assuming I haven’t confused their last names, too). And the ink’s been flying over these new singer-songwriters, most of it positive. (OK, I once called Jason Mraz “Jeff Buckley on Prozac,” but upon reflection, Jeff Buckley kinda needed Prozac. ) Yep, it’s a great time to be a singer-songwriter.

If you’re a guy, that is. If you’re a woman, you apparently still have to act like a semi-sentient Bratz doll if you want to get attention, unless there’s something about Avril Lavigne that I’m missing.

Comes now Bonnie McKee and her two singles, “Trouble” and “Somebody,” leading off her not-yet-released debut album Trouble. The nineteen-year-old Seattlite has been singing publicly since the age of five and writing songs since she was twelve. She also got a huge boost from being cast as the young Janis Joplin in NBC’s series American Dreams.

But she’s not an actress; she’s a musician who got a nice acting job. And that much is obvious when you hear “Trouble” and “Somebody.” Bonnie McKee is not a teen-fluff fashion doll. She’s a major talent who knows how to make music that’ll hit you where you live.

If you told me Laura Nyro had written “Trouble” in 1968, I’d believe you. It’s that same sort of lowering, threatening, literate bluesy pop that Nyro dealt in. The song, which McKee wrote when she was sixteen, is brilliant both musically and lyrically. She’s got a knack for internal rhyme. “It was a cold October night/It was a far from sober night” she sings as she begins her tale of falling for a dangerous man. “I gave you the one thing I can never retrieve/And now you’re leaving my heart bleeding in my hands”–look, you’ve pretty much got to be about Bonnie McKee’s age to get away with singing those words, and even then, they’re still full of danger. But the way McKee almost strangles the words in her throat, it’s clear that she’s not singing about a girl in trouble–she’s singing about a girl who’s getting ready to cause a little trouble herself. (And hey, there’s that internal rhyme again, too.) The production adds some slinky percussion and the best flute sample since the Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot” to the mix, keeping the song moving forward.

Meanwhile, out in Hollywood, they’ve discovered the touching ballad “Somebody” and used it in the movie Win A Date With Tad Hamilton. On this song McKee narrows her focus to one of those impossibly lonely weekend nights when you’re not sure if you’re missing somebody or just the idea of somebody–but it really doesn’t matter which, since all you can think about is your own pain. She goes through the motions of trying to carry on with life, but there’s no relief. Again, she’s skating into dangerous territory–only about a billion sappy “woe is me, I’m alone” songs have been written, and most of them are terrible.

But “Somebody” is not, mostly because McKee lets the vulnerability in her voice show through. Over a shimmering background of processed piano and Hammond organ, she unwinds her hope for a better romantic future, but it’s always intertwined with a little bit of fear that “the one” just got away.

When you’re talking about an emerging artist, particularly one who’s as young as Bonnie McKee is, it’s tempting to talk about the potential they show. But that just ignores the fact that they’ve already become something now. And what Bonnie McKee is right now is a singer-songwriter with a supple voice who knows how to write ‘em the way they used to. The production on these two singles may be a bit slick for some tastes, but underneath it all there’s some soulful and creative music the likes of which we’ve not heard for a while–not since the first heyday of the singer-songwriter, when Laura Nyro, Carole King, and Carly Simon were coming out of every radio. You can buy McKee’s record, or you can give your silent permission for five more years of pathetic Britinica Spearguilerason garbage. Don’t let the terrorists win, people. Bonnie McKee is exactly the sort of artist we should be encouraging.

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About Mark Hasty

  • http://www.markhasty.com Mark Hasty

    I don’t know why my blog sent three trackbacks to this post. It was only supposed to send one. My apologies.

  • http://www.temptationwaits.com visualsimplicity

    Hey, I just heard her song recently on LaunchCast and thought it was interesting so I looked her up. I come to blogcritics the same day and I see this. How coincidental. Her songs are alright, but if she ever gets mainstream appeal, she’ll most likely get lumped in with the other pop stars simply because of the way she looks.

  • Eric Olsen

    very nice job Mark, thanks – it is too bad they don’t trust her “artistic” ability and emphasize the faux-glamor angle: she doesn’t look all that comfortable with it

  • http://www.markhasty.com Mark Hasty

    About the only thing I can say is, they tried much the same thing with Tori Amos back in the late 80s, promoting her as a heavy-metal vixen (if you can believe that). Eventually her talent overcame the hype machine’s demands, and she was able to make her own kind of music and control her image. I hope the same thing happens with Bonnie–she really does have a lot of talent.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    interesting. i happened to listen to this cd on the way to work this morning, and found myself thinking that i’d really, really like to hear McKee actually pull a true sing-songwriter, girl-with guitar thing.

    the songs are pretty good, but the production can make a person think she’s just another dance-lite artist.

    too bad, really, ‘cuz she does have an interesting voice as well.

  • http://www.markhasty.com Mark Hasty

    First of all, thanks to whoever cleaned up the multiple trackbacks. I don’t know if that’s an issue with MT 2.64 (which I use) or if it’s just a server/ISP issue. Whatever.

    Mark, I agree that the production does sometimes get in the way of the music. But I listened to the local hip-hop station today over the lunch hour, and I realized just how noisy radio songs have become. To somebody raised on a steady diet of contemporary rap and R&B, Bonnie McKee’s songs would almost sound like Springsteen’s Nebraska album. So maybe they know something we don’t; still, I’d also like to hear her without all the studio frippery.

  • Eric Olsen

    We usually get multiple trackbacks because people don’t realize the trackback doesn’t show up on the page until the page is rebuilt by a comment (or rebuilt for whatever reason), so they keep repinging – one time I saw like 13 from one site.

    Anyway, “whoever” is typically me, and I am more or less back in a normal mode of operation now.

  • http://www.markhasty.com Mark Hasty

    Naah, I wasn’t repinging–my MT will sometimes send multiple pings to other blogs I link to as well. I usually get “read error” or “time out” in my activity log afterward.