Jen Cass, Accidental Pilgrimage
The gentle folk-rock sound of Jen Cass's new CD makes an effective contrast with her sometimes pointed lyrics. It's Cass's most political album, containing several protest songs (one is about Phil Ochs) along with some new historical and slice-of-life sketches of the type she's always been good at, and a few straight-ahead love songs.
Not surprisingly, the latter are a little less interesting. But the CD as a whole casts a soft, steady spell under which the plainspoken lyrics can work subtle magic. "In every church another Pharisee / Tells us 'We are right, they're wrong / I give you sin and guilt / And Judgment Day, now let us pray, / And let us join the choir in song.'"
Religious imagery is everywhere in these songs. In "Forever Damned" a young protagonist makes a bad choice in love and now must live with some unnamed but terrible consequence; yet she's defiant: "Still...I'd choose the apple / Over every other taste / And I would savor that sweet freedom / Letting Eden go to waste." It's the never-ending struggle between what feels right and what is right that gives Cass's songs, even the gentlest of them, their power.
Finian McKean, Shades Are Drawn
Lo-fi urban folkie Finian McKean's new CD is a collection of fashionably gloomy but original-sounding songs. Like J. J. Cale he records his resigned vocals deep in the mix so you have to lean forward to listen. Beatle-esque melodies tickle the ear; sixties-style guitar rock energy ("black hole," "small request") leavens the sadness; and quirky writing ("little beggar," "where no one wants me," and an unnamed extra song at the end) helps make the whole claustrophobic enterprise fun. You can just imagine him holed up in Red Hook grousing about how no one comes to visit him because there's no subway in the area, while mixing his rock, country and folk sounds into a gritty, citified stew. This forty-minute Brooklyn howl should put McKean and his musical neighborhood on the hipster map, if not the MTA's.