REVIEW: Lori McKenna: Pieces of Me
Lori McKenna: Pieces of Me [Catalyst Disc, 2002]
Three words? Confessions from Massachussets
If the success of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack accomplishes one thing, it will be - I hope - the erosion of the public's aversion to twang. Unless the rock'n'roll is as thick as motor oil, warning bells sound at the merest suggestion of the South. "I hate country!" squawks the hipper-than-thou indie rock kid as Gillian Welch begins to waft from the stereo; "What are you, Mr. Honky-Tonk?", they yell, as Okkervil River's mandolin player begins to pluck. Neil Young may have the respect of rockers, but you don't hear his new album getting airplay. Twangy music has a vast wealth of tone and timbre; for every Garth Brooks there's a Mojave 3, those who despise Hank Williams may yet adore Beck.
Lori McKenna's free, agile voice bounds from word to word, coaxing meaning from simple turns of phrase, singing with a joy that's enough to clear the clouds. It's rich with a Southern twang, but not laid on with a thick lacquer; this is no Country Barbie Shania Twain: the breaks in her voice are like bright birdsong. McKenna sounds a great deal like Vancouver's Oh Susanna, and both learned to sing far from the Deep South that permeates their delivery. McKenna's subject-matter, however, has more in common with fellow Massachussets native Dar Williams: she speaks of love and family, death and pain. On "Pink Sweater" she takes on the cause of James Byrd, the black man dragged to death by Texan bigots.
Even when McKenna's lyrics become a little much - her motherhood too simply displayed, her faith too plainly stated - the vigour of her voice communicates a more subtle truth. From the soaring chorus of "Mars": "I see Mars, reflecting in my little boy's brown eyes / And he says 'Mama, I'm going to get there someday' / And I say 'Fly'." Whereas in print the sappiness is enough to choke, in sound it is a ringing, head-back celebration. Lori McKenna sings of hope like few others can, and the backing vocals from Richard Shindell and McCawley Burke lend a sycamore strength to the minor-key tracks. When Shindell joins McKenna on "Never Die Young", the simple words gain a gravitas that demands silence. "God Will Thank You" is a midtempo country swagger with fiddle and accordion, a little too circular in its structure. "This Fire" invests an at-first "typical girly lovesong" with an adult sting: "Will you love me, when I'm angry / Will you bring me my spirit when my soul is dry / Will your harbor all my vengeance - will you lay down in this fire."
Elsewhere, McKenna swings from raw confessionals to lighter, faster numbers. It's on the latter that she struggles - as with Sarah McLachlan, the lyrics don't all stand up when unbolstered by careful delivery. Still, McKenna has a talent for melody - the rousing, healing chorus of "Pink Sweater" is positively cheer-worthy: "I'll be the one in the Pink Sweater / Dancing around when you're gone." Fortunately, most of the album's tracks take the slower, sadder route, and there's sometimes a brilliance that recalls Gillian Welch and Songs:Ohia. The title track struggles with failure, words mumured over strummed acoustic guitar: "I have been a poet all my life. / With really not too much to say." "Deserving Song" is the disc's finest track, again facing the spectre of disappointment and self-doubt. The stripped pain of the song calls out from above gentle piano, and McKenna reveals a startlingly affecting vocal range, dropping from high, sharp notes to a sad, low-voiced resignation.
Lori McKenna's sophomore album is a fine collection of songs, wrapping longing and loving around subtle-voiced tunes and a moving, confessional spirit. McKenna is at her strongest when she is singing of twilight, and although she stumbles over some happier songs, it's more than made up for in the fiery melancholy of the others.