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(Righteous Babe Records 68 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/14/2009)
With so many good singer-songwriters on the scene these days, musical eclecticism seems like a good strategy for setting oneself apart. And this week we have very good example. It's Erin McKeown, and her new CD is called Hundreds of Lions.
Thirty-two-year-old Erin McKeown grew up in Fredricksburg, Virginia. She began writing songs while still in high school, but it was while attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, that she began her musical career. She started out studying ornithology, but ended up graduating with a degree in ethnomusicology. She released two recordings while still in college, and performed on the weekends whenever possible. Her first full album, Monday Morning Cold was released independently in 1999, then she moved to the folk label Signature Sounds Records for the follow-up a year later, called Distillation. She has been releasing a series of recordings since then, some on semi-major labels. After going much more electric on her 2005 release We Will Become Like Birds, her most recent, called Sing You Sinners, in 2006 was a collection of covers of jazz and torch songs going back to the 1920s. In addition to her own music, she has been working as a multi-instrumentalist studio musician.
After being fairly prolific in the earlier part of the decade, Hundreds of Lions is Erin McKeown's first full recording of original songs in four years. But I think it's worth the wait.
On the new CD, she works with producer Sam Kassirer, and holed up in a farm house in Maine, occasionally moving to a nearby rural church to record the strings and horns which adorn the new CD. Ms. KcKeown's engaging and often distinctive lyrics are set to arrangements that run from folky to theatrical to echoing styles of the early 20th Century. There are also whimsical touches and arrangements that combine rather disparate sounds. But it all comes off as coherent and very engaging. While there is a small group of players -- Ms. KcKeown and Kassirer play a lot of instruments by way of overdubbing -- the music is quite diverse sonically. In the process of recording, Kassirer and Ms. KcKeown decided to bring in the horns and strings pretty much at the beginning and rather than adding them later as is usually the case with pop recordings.
How the CD got made also is an interesting story. This time, Ms. McKeown released the recording through Ani DiFranco's very-independent Righteous Babe Records, but she still needed to raise the money to record. So she held a number of Internet "house concerts" she called "Cabin Fever" which she used to generate funding for the recording project. They included some fairly prominent new England folkies as guests.
The result is probably her best CD to date, and one that has a lot to offer musically, lyrically and sonically. The sound backs away from the rockier treatment of We Will Become Like Birds, but there's a lot going on, and every track has something distinctive to offer.
The opening piece provides a good example. To a Hammer features the orchestral instruments in a kind of curious love song. <<>>
Taking a different direction, more toward an appealing pop sound, is Santa Cruz with lyrics are not as sunny as the musical setting. <<>>
Erin McKeown the folkie comes out on the song You, Sailor, done in a mainly acoustic setting, but with interesting touches like the woodwinds and vibes. <<>>>
One of the most distinctive tracks on the CD has an appropriately intriguing title Put the Fun Back in the Funeral, which seems to be a series of nightmare scenes, including finding oneself buried alive. <<>>
The title track Hundreds of Lions is another appealingly quirky song. It's about being in a circus, and the music sounds oddly appropriate. <<>>
Another piece that has a distinctly bittersweet quality is The Foxes, which mixes sonic ingredients, moods and musical eclecticism. <<>>
Taking a more introspective sound is a track called The Boats, with more scaled back but still distinctive instrumentation. <<>>
Probably the most curious piece lyrically is The Rascal, which has a kind of 19th century quality, reminiscent of the folksong Shortnin' Bread in its setting, but it's not without its complications. <<>>
Erin McKeown's new CD Hundreds of Lions is a most worthwhile and multifaceted recording from a talented New England-based singer-songwriter who has been recording for ten years now on both independent and major labels. She comes up with a collection of the kinds of songs that one can spend a good deal of time and number of listenings to figure out lyrically, and the instrumentation and production are most creative, being not only an unusual blend of instrumental sounds, but one that was very skillfully executed.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus bordering on a B-plus. The mix and subtle combination of sonic textures was very well handled. Sam Kassirer's production is outstanding. But the sonic subtlety was undermined by trying to compete in the CD loudness wars, using heavy-handed volume compression to make the CD loud all the time. Of course, it seems that we say that just about every week.
The publicity material for her new CD says that Ms. McKeown and producer Kassirer did not have to worry about "a label exec to watch the clock" so they had time to do a fair amount of experimentation. That is evident on Hundreds of Lions. With Ms. McKeown's literate and often distinctive songs and appealing, chanteuse-like vocals it makes or a winning combination, breathing more fresh air into the durable singer-songwriter format.
(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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