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Humphrey-McKeown: All I Wanted to Hear
by George Graham
(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/27/2016)
Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, or maybe it’s a genuine phenomenon, but from my viewpoint, music that draws directly on styles from decades past seems to be increasingly ubiquitous. To be sure, the great majority of commercial music on the scene is more contemporary in its influences laden with stylistic fads that are likely to fade quickly, but look beyond the pop charts and the musical tedium of the commercial media, and you’ll find a lot of younger musicians drawing styles that were popular when their parents were coming of age. I suppose that’s understandable, with Baby Boomers likely to have a lot more recorded music around the house than their parents did, and thus the children of the boomer naturally were exposed to Woodstock-era music as they were growing up. And one of the styles that seems to be trending these days is what they used to call folk-rock, with folk-influenced music with a more electric context. Popular examples include Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. And often these folk rockers are in small groups with vocal harmonies as they did back a half century ago with artists like the Simon & Garfunkel and The Byrds.
This week we have a new recording by a duo calling themselves Humphrey McKeown. It’s their fourth, and titled All I Wanted To Hear.
Heather Humphrey, originally from New York, and Chicagoan Tom McKeown first met in 2006 when McKeown asked attendees at an informal gathering whether anyone had an interest in writing music. Ms. Humphrey said yes, and they soon began writing songs together. Initially, they were just a composing team selling songs to the Nashville music business as well as publishers in Chicago and Los Angeles. After writing some 100 songs for others, they decided to start performing together beginning with an open mic in 2010. They have been working together, honing their songs for themselves and developing their sound that drew on a lot of folky ingredients plus some rock and a little blues. They describe themselves on their website as a folk-rock Americana, swamp-grass singer-songwriter duo. And one can find those elements in their music, with McKeown being the multi-instrumentalist with his banjo, mandolin, guitar and harmonica, plus some drums, and Ms. Humphrey mainly on piano plus some flute, with vocals by both. They are joined by some additional players, including an another drummer to give the acoustic instruments more of a beat, plus players on violin, cello and the like. Humphey-McKeown’s songs are mature and definitely indicative of a long-running musical partnership. They can be melodic or rocky, and lyrically they can take some interesting directions on the perennial topic of relationships, sometimes complicated ones.
The album opens with The You I Knew which shows the duo’s folk-rock and perhaps swamp-rock influence with the banjo, the doleful fiddle and the rocky drums. It’s a song of breakup, or perhaps dismay at what has happened to someone close. <<>>
Rather similar in mood lyrically is the following piece Morning Is Broken, which takes a more folk-bluegrass sound, though with Ms. Humphrey’s piano taking the texture in a different direction. It’s nicely done. <<>>
One of the more clever songs on the album is This Ain’t That Day, which has a bouncy bluegrassy sound but with lyrics that again are about a relationship coming apart. <<>>
More intimate sounding is a piece called Seraphine, which appears to be about a special needs girl. <<>
The self-described swampy side of the band comes out sonically on the title track All I Wanted to Hear, which has a bluesy sound, including with a Dobro, with bits of psychedelic influence in another of their songs about a relationship in trouble. <<>>
Interestingly, for a duo of literate songwriters, the album has an instrumental track. It’s called Cornfield Waltz and it’s a nice side trip with Ms. Humphrey’s piano dominating the sound with the added cello. <<>>
Probably the most straight-out love song is a piece called Just One More, sung in a call and response form. It’s two lovers preparing the departure of one of them which would keep them apart for a while. <<>>
The album ends with a song of encouragement called Waiting to Begin speaking to someone who might be discouraged by life events. Humphrey and McKeown take turns on the verses. <<>>
All I Wanted to Hear, the new fourth album by the duo of Heather Humphrey and Tom McKeown, is a nicely executed album of a new generation of folk-rock. The mostly acoustic instrumentation is often supplemented by drums to give it the rock texture, while the combination of instruments is sometimes fairly distinctive for what is essentially a singer-songwriter record by two artists who are partners in both duties of singing an songwriting. Their songs are intelligent and sometimes insightful lyrically, though the classic subject of relationships dominate the lyrical direction of the album. Their musical collaboration is a effective and close one. The do-it-yourself self-produced album hits all the right notes with the added instrumentation, never going too far into the mainstream pop or rock world in sound but with creative songs that do have potential wide appeal.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an A. The duo recorded All I Wanted to Hear in their own studio, and while it’s sometimes apparent that there isn’t always that high-budget sheen, but the clarity is good and the temptation to use studio effects was generally resisted. The dynamic range, how well the recording preserves the difference between loud and soft, is above average, but not at audiophile level.
Humphrey-McKeown’s All I Wanted to Hear is an appealing and worthwhile recording that nicely combines the singer-songwriter genre with the revival of folk rock, in a way that has a classic quality that’s likely to sound as good years from now as it does today.
(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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