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?”