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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1556

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Kelleigh McKenzie: Chances
by George Graham

(Zatchubilly Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/29/2009)

It's definitely a buyer's market for folk-based singer-songwriters. They are so many of them that one would have thought by now that, given the relative simplicity of the genre, that all the ground would have been covered -- that any new artist would not have a lot to offer. But perhaps it's the directness and personal nature of the style that has given the form seemingly endless stying power. After all, it is a kid of direct communication from artist to fan. This week, we have another impressive debut from a singer-songwriter who brings an appealing musical personality and a distinctive stylistic mix from which she draws. She is Kelleigh McKenzie, whose new recording is called Chances.

Her capsule biography states that she is a native of Oregon, but lives in Upstate New York, where she has has performed before "a small circle of friends and fans." Her main instrument is the banjo which adds an interesting touch, though she is no slouch on guitar.

She eventually decided to start recording some of ther songs, and got together with some musicians around Woodstock, including bassist Scott Petito, who has worked with James Taylor and Rory Block among others, and drummer Dan Hickey, who has worked with Rickie Lee Jones and They Might Be Giants. Apparently the sessions proceeded casually with Jeff Michne serving as co-producer with Ms. McKenzie.

Ms. McKenzie often wields her banjo in a way that suggest old-timey music, on which there is often layered a more contemporary, occasionally borderline funky texture. She's got a great voice, and lyrically, her songs run the gamut from an ode to her dog to a couple of distinctly political songs, to the expected explorations of love. She also does an interesting cover of a Beatles song. Throughout the album, the instrumentation and arrangements are kept ineteresting with distinctive little touches, or changes in direction after a song seems to establish itself.

That is demonstrated in the opening track O Mother, which evokes the sound of old-time Appalachian music, in both music and its yearning lyrics. <<>> But the track evolves from the rustic sound to the atmospheric as some spacy guitars enter the picture. <<>>

In a somewhat similar mood is a song which won her an independent music award in the Americana category, Gin. Again, it combines the rustic with the sonically ethereal. The subject matter could be straight out of the temperance movement. <<>>

Ms. McKenzie shows her chops on guitar on a song called Easy Time which she describes as a "lullaby" for the late bluesman Chris Whitley. <<>>

One of the songs about the state of the world is called Underground, which Ms. McKenzie said was inspired by "the women of Prajwala" an organization in India dedicated to eradicating trafficking in women and forced prostitution. <<>>

In Between represents another facet of the album. The somewhat cryptic love song is given a kind of jazzy reggae beat. <<>>

There's more political commentary, some of it protest songs springing out of the Bush years. 2017 is a distinctive, atmospheric piece that speculates on a time when abortion rights have been repealed. <<>>

Also inspired by the previous administration is War for Sale a bluesy song that could also have emerged from the Vietnam days. <<>>

The most whimsical track on the CD is the Bus Song a story about trying to catch a bus in New York, set to a jazzy setting accompanied by Scott Petito's acoustic bass. <<>>

The CD ends with a short but clever piece called Roark about her dog. <<>>

Kelleigh McKenzie's new CD Chances is a relatively short but impressive debut recording by an appealing, intelligent and eclectic singer-songwriter who takes a few interesting turns to avoid some of the clichés of the folkie milieu. Her use of the banjo adds an interesting twist, as does the way she can combine old-timey Appalachian influence with decidedly more contemporary and atmospheric ingredients. She is joined by a very tasteful backing band who rise to the occasion to add just the right touches to the music.

The CD also gets one of our relatively rare "A" grades in the sonic department. The recording, made in what looks like a living-room studio, has good clarity and warmth. Electronic effects are sparing and effective, and there is actually a half-decent dynamic range.

Just when you think the world is entirely too full of singer-songwriters, one comes along that shows that the genre is a long way from being tapped out. Make room for Kelleigh McKenzie.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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