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.Powered by Sidelines