(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CD review - Erin McKeown, Hundreds of Lions (2009)

I'm looking forward to catching Erin McKeown in concert this coming Friday in Denver at the Walnut Room. She's touring with Jill Sobule, another of my favorite singer/songwriters. I hadn't really heard Erin before listening to Hundred of Lions, but I'm a fan now.

Her voice is intriguing: smoky and a little bit bruised. It reminds me a bit of Shirley Basie, Edie Brickell, and Eleni Mandell, depending on the song. McKeown tends sings a little off to the side of her subjects, providing a touch of distance. Several of the songs are borderline hypnotic, with repeated phrases and music that builds, layer by layer. The music meshes orchestral instruments with guitar and drums. There's a strong folk aesthetic, but it's tempered by jazz grooves and an indie rock sensibility.

There are several strong tracks, but All That Time You Missed is one of those hypnotic ones. It starts with a tone and an uptempo acoustic guitar and builds a moody groove. There's a satisfying contrast between slow components and faster ones: the woodwind tone and other slower tonal bits on the slower side pushing against the faster guitar and percussion. The percussion starts with simple drums but little bits of tech noise slide in as the complexity evolves. The chorus speaks to a universal theme of post breakup analysis:
And the easiest path to a broken heart is to keep moving
Could we have saved ourselves this walk by standing still?
This live version, stripped down to just the guitar and voice, doesn't really do it justice.

McKeown has talked about rejecting traditional genres for categories like "sunny day" or "car ride". The song, 28 starts out like a sunny walk, dappled with shadows. It's dreamy, with opaque lyrics that fit the music. Something about the melody of the bridge after the first lines makes me think of Riot Van, by the Arctic Monkeys, which just seems like an odd juxtaposition. Eventually, the song shifts into more of a simple, repetitive rocker before shifting back. I would have like more of that higher energy section, but the dynamic drop is nice, too.

There are plenty of sweet moments scattered throughout Hundreds of Lions -- the Celtic folk sound of You, Sailor (with its "I am a king/I am aching" dualism), The Lions' lush, "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" style retro groove, and the chanteuse-worthy Seamless which evokes Shirley Bassie singing Autumn Leaves.

Give Erin McKeown a listen. A 15 year old Dalwhinnie, sweet with heather should go well with the music.

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