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(Appleseed 1085 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/18/2006)
The number of first-rate singer-songwriters on the scene these days is almost astonishing. And unlike the proliferation of bad or imitative rock bands, it seems as if there is always room for another good singer-songwriter who has something to say. This, even though the audience for such folk-oriented artists is decidedly smaller than that for rock or pop.
This week, we have yet another fine artist who draws on folk influences, writes articulate, literate songs, and has a very attractive voice. It's Kate McDonnell, whose current CD is called Where the Mangoes Are. Kate McDonnell is from update New York, and perhaps her most immediately distinctive trait is her guitar technique, described as upside down and backwards: she plays a right-handed guitar in the left-handed position. But as a self-taught guitarist, she is an impressive player. She is also has one of those nearly perfect folksinger voices, somewhere between Joan Baez and Patty Larkin. Where the Mangoes Are is her fourth release, and it's her best yet.
It was produced by Scott Petito in Woodstock, New York. Petito is a multi-instrumentalist who has worked with a number of other folkies, and is known for his tasteful, but fairly sophisticated work. He's not afraid to use the resources of the studio to enhance the songs, without making it sound like a big production.
Ms. McDonnell writes about what I supposed could be called the standard gamut of lyrical topics, love in various forms, including being pulled asunder, plus philosophical considerations and a political commentary. But despite the fact that these paths have been followed before, Ms. McDonnell manages to add some new light and avoid many of the cliches. And even when subject has been dealt with before, the musical setting is so attractive that it still sounds fresh.
Producer Petito plays a lot of instruments, including bass, which is main instrument, plus keyboards and various other string instruments. The rest of the small band includes Marc Schulman on guitars, Sam Brewton on drums, Mindy Jostyn on accordion and fiddle, and Beth Reineke on backing vocals. Together they create a musical setting that ranges from vaguely rocky to a slightly ethereal cushion of sound surrounding Ms. McDonnell's acoustic guitar and vocals. Ms. McDonnell's lyrical collaborator for most of the songs on the CD is Anne Lindley.
The a;bum opens with Tumbleweed, a kind of stream-of-consciousness recollection of details about a drive out West. It's typical of the attractive sound of the CD. <<>>
There are two consecutive tracks with the same titles as older songs. One is Hey Joe, which is obviously not the Billy Roberts composition that Jimi Hendrix made famous. The "Joe" in this song is a kind of reckless guy whom the protagonist falls for. <<>>
Also sharing a title with an old song is Go Down Moses, which draws on a Biblical analogy in its consideration of a relationship. The performance and the atmospheric guitars sounds are particularly effective on this track. <<>>
Featuring Ms. McDonnell's impressive acoustic guitar work is 5:05, one two pieces written solely by Ms. Donnell. It's perhaps the saddest song on the album taking up the subject of grief for the loss of a loved one. <<>>
There are two non-original songs on Where the Mangoes Are. One is the traditional folksong Railroad Bill, performed pretty much as you would expect to hear a folksong, with harmonica and fiddle among the assembled musical forces. <<>>
The other track not written by Ms. McDonnell is the Steve Earle composition Goodbye Song, which is also served up in a folk setting. The performance is nicely done, with Ms. McDonnell's vocal being especially effective. <<>>
A good folksinger album would not be complete without some social commentary. Mercy is Ms. McDonnell's entry, addressing the state of the world and the culture of hostility and war. Ms. McDonnell makes her point without being too heavy-handed. <<>>
Perhaps the most perplexing lyrics come on the song Luis, seemingly the story of trying to enlist someone to make a coffin for someone who is apparently still around. <<>>
About as close to rock as this CD comes is the song Fires, in which wildfires in the West become a backdrop to missing one's significant other. <<>>
Kate McDonnell's CD Where the Mangoes Are is a fine recording by one of the several hundred worthy singer-songwriters on the scene these days. The album is marked by high grades in all the facets of the style -- excellent writing, lyrically and musically, fine vocals, and interesting and tasteful musical arrangements. The CD also has a good mix of lyrical subject, covering the ground of many of Ms. McDonnell's predecessors and compatriots, but adding her own appealing touch. Scott Petito's work as a producer deserves praise for his taking this beyond being an acoustic folksinger's album without excessive sonic baggage. It's both pleasing to listen to, and often quite interesting.
Sonically, we'll give the CD an A-minus, for very good audio clarity, with the vocals being especially well-recorded. But we'll deduct points for the now-ubiquitous volume compression unnecessarily used to crank up the loudness of the CD.
In the first part of the 21st Century, we have no shortage of practitioners of the art of creating and singing music in the folk-influenced mode. Despite the deceptive simplicity of the form, the scene has great depth, and despite the great number of artists inhabiting the genre, people manage to create worthwhile and memorable new music. Kate McDonnell has certainly done that, and Where the Mangoes Are makes a worthwhile addition to one's library.
(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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