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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1368

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Lori McKenna: Bittertown
by George Graham

(Signature Sounds 1285 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/23/2004)

Folk songwriters have a reputation for rambling around, with Woody Guthrie being the archetype. They travel to find audiences, and sometimes in search of material.

This week, we have a new recording from a singer-songwriter who has stayed put, continuing to live in the small town in which she grew up. On her new CD, she weaves those environs into suite of songs about those surroundings. Her name is Lori McKenna, and her new CD -- her fourth -- is called Bittertown.

For Ms. McKenna, home is Stoughton, Massachusetts, a small town southwest of Boston, where, during the recording of this CD, she was expecting her fifth child.

Lori McKenna emerged on the well-populated Bay State folk and singer-songwriter scene with an independent debut album in 1998 called Paper Wings and Halo, which attracted critical praise, and led to her recording for the Western-Massachusetts-based national folk label Signature Sounds Records. They released Pieces of Me, which led to some national touring. After releasing a collection of demo recordings, now three years after her last studio album, she is out with Bittertown, a tasteful, rootsy collection of songs mostly woven around the theme of ordinary people living lives in various states of satisfaction and disarray, performed by some first-rate backing musicians in a setting that runs from roots rock to folky. Ms. McKenna's vocals sometimes evoke country music, and at others the classic folk-influenced singer-songwriter.

Bittertown was produced by Boston-area drummer and producer Lorne Entress, who has had a long career with such artists Barrence Whitfield and Ronnie Earl. Also appearing is guitarist Kevin Barry, known for his work with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Paula Cole; and guitarist Duke Levine, another ubiquitous player whose work has graced many an album by Boston-area singer-songwriters. Guest vocalists include Buddy Miller, well-known in his own right as a Nashville singer-songwriter, and Marc Erelli, one of Boston's own bright lights in the same field. Also making a guest appearance in Ms. McKenna's 14-year-old son Brian on guitar on one tune.

The CD has a sound in keeping with the contemporary singer-songwriter scene, though quite tastefully done, and reflecting a variety of influences. But the focus is on the songs. While not really a billed as a concept album, most of the Bittertown's songs revolve around a hypothetical small town, where everybody knows everybody, along with the tribulations and passions that affect most people at one point or another: love, worries about fidelity, and seeing how your old classmates turned out.

The scene is set in the opening track, Bible Song, one of the more country-influenced compositions, featuring Buddy Miller on the backing vocals. The small town almost becomes a character in the song, as the lyrics tell the intertwined story of some of the inhabitants and some of the town's unhappy secrets. <<>>

The town is again a large presence in one of the CD's highlight tracks, One Man. In this case, the residents reflect on the changes since their high-school days, and express their concern for the future character of the place. <<>>

Somewhat jazzy in sound is the track called Pour, a kind of classic tale of love torn asunder by one party walking out. <<>>

Another memorable song set in album's small town. Lone Star is about the geeks in high school who turned out to be wildly successful while the popular ones ended up staying behind living small lives. <<>>

The passage of time and fading of youthful passions are the topic for Stealing Kisses. The scaled-back arrangement works well for this bittersweet song. <<>>

One of the rockiest tracks is Cowardly Lion, in which Ms. McKenna touches on the age-old dilemma of responsibility and faithfulness, and the lack thereof, in a relationship. <<>>

One of the most distinctive pieces on the CD is My Sweetheart, whose mood of concern about the fidelity of one's significant other, is given an oddly ominous performance through the unsettling juxtaposition of major and minor chords. It evokes old Appalachian folk songs, or the more recent work of Gillian Welch. <<>>

The generous 13-song CD ends with one of its most appealing and optimistic songs, One Kiss Goodnight, which celebrates an apparently successful relationship. <<>>

Massachusetts singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, on her new CD Bittertown created a thoughtful and appealing CD that not only has tasteful musicianship and worthwhile songs, but is rather like a well-executed concept album, with most of the songs arising from the ordinary lives and passions of the hypothetical town's citizens. In a way it's a reflection of her own experience, staying in the town in which she grew up, and with abundant family responsibilities. It's an album that addresses some of the same concerns of songwriters over the ages, but Ms. McKenna brings a distinctive perspective, enhanced by the CD's astute arrangements and Ms. McKenna's pleasingly honest vocals.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A." There's good clarity and the dynamic range is commendable.

Good singer-songwriter records are not hard to come by in what has become the current golden age of such artists -- and a good number seem to come from Massachusetts. But Lori McKenna brings a distinctive viewpoint on her new album that allows it to stand out in a crowded field.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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