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CD Review: Erin McKeown – We Will Become Like Birds

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Erin McKeown is probably best known – if she is known at all – as the diminutive coffeehouse firecracker who released the half hot jazz/half neo-folk album Distillation in 2000. But that is in fact if she is known at all. Despite her massive songwriting skills, her lithe guitar work, and her playful, smoky voice, wider sucess has thus far eluded her. Hopefully her forthcoming album, We Will Become Like Birds (Nettwerk) will cure this unconscionable injustice.

There are reasons why McKeown hasn’t broken through yet. The songs on Distillation (which – full disclosure – is one of my all time favorite records) sound tailor-made for coffeehouses and alternative performance venues in college towns, and in fact they were. McKeown honed her chops in the hippie heaven of Northampton, Massachusetts and the New England college circuit, and the album makes a great deal of sense to someone familiar with that scene.

But there are limitations to being a coffee house queen, and McKeown is too much of a talent to settle for that. Not that there’s anything wrong with a lifetime of being top draw at the Iron Horse, but Erin McKeown isn’t playing that game. Her 2002 album, Grand, could barely have been more of a departure from Distillation if she had strapped on a Gibson Flying “V” and begun rapping her songs. In fact, judging from some early demos I heard from the Grand sessions, metal and rap weren’t entirely out of the question.

Jumping from speedy rock to folky rumination to burlesque without a breath in between, Grand was the sound of a very talented musician growing up in public. Unfortunately, McKeown’s personality seemed to drown in her new songs. The rock seemed a little bloodless and the lyrics, though stunningly literate, lacked the sly wit that was her greatest asset. Worst of all, McKeown’s jawdropping guitar failed to sparkle under the weight of her new ambitions.

No matter, I thought. I have faith in Erin; she’ll figure it out. And indeed she has. Her new album, We Will Become Like Birds (Nettwerk, Jun 28 2005) fulfills every inch of the promise she has so far shown, and her genre-jumping has settled down to a comfortable set of rock, pop, and neo-folk gestures that allow her plenty of room to move. McKeown has acknowledged as much, saying “With this project, I deliberately set out to narrow my focus. What would happen if I concentrated on one thing for a whole album?”

What happened is that she has finally figured out what to do with all her talent. Where Distillation sometimes seemed a little precious (watch the lady play the heck outta Rogers & Hart!), and Grand just tried too hard, Birds feels completely natural, lived in and comfortable like a good pair of jeans. Best of all, McKeown’s vivid lyrics, round and smoky voice, and custom-built fingerpicked Stratocaster are in full effect.

Although We Will Become Like Birds sticks mostly to guitar-bass-drums rock arrangements for the basic tracks, the sound is buoyed by tasteful keyboard and mandolin flourishes, smart production by Tucker Martine (Bill Frisell, Jim White, Modest Mouse), and the occasional subtle electronic beep. When McKeown bears down on a chorus the band (a crew of crack studio veterans) comes with her, and when she chooses to be expansive the band lets right go.

McKeown also has one great advantage in her way with a lyric. She has a natural ear for a singable phrase and a pungent turn, and a winning directness that carries her more precious metaphors.

Despite the nuances and lyrical filigrees, Birds is ultimately an adult rock/folk/pop album. For this reason, some people might argue that McKeown’s overall sound is a little middle of the road. To this I say: yes, but it’s driving a Bentley.

Other reviewers have made references to Sam Phillips and Aimee Mann in describing McKeown’s sound. I can’t pass judgement on these comparisions, since I don’t typically go in for that sort of thing, but if that floats your boat than do know this: Erin McKeown reminds some people of Sam Phillips and Aimee Mann. I would probably use the names Catie Curtis, Freedy Johnston, Elvis Costello and maybe Van Morrison and Laura Nyro instead, but to each his own.

The point is, We Shall Become Like Birds is the coming-out party of a talented and distinctive young songwriter entering the height of her powers. We her fans have been waiting for this one.

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About John Owen

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    I had the good fortune to review Grand a couple years back. It is a truly ambitious work, exploring a wide range of emotions and experiences.

    That sort of artistic broad-mindedness can interfere with commercial success. Some listeners want their music all dark and disturbing. Others want it all light and cheery. Few want both on the same album.

    I’m glad to hear Erin McKeown is getting closer to building an album that might let more people hear her voice, both in the literary sense and the musical sense of the voice.