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

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Recording review - Erin McKeown, Manifestra (2013)

Political themes get the pop treatment

Erin McKeown's last full length release, Hundreds of Lions (2009) (review), jumped around genres and rejected pigeonholing. Her songwriting showcased strong band arrangements that scaled down well to her solo shows. In either context, her voice remained constant: assertive yet vulnerable, never quite surrendering to the song. McKeown's latest offering, Manifestra, continues Lions' move away from her singer/songwriter roots, taking advantage of the studio and a full backing band. While she still grazes across a wide range of styles, the new album embraces the trappings of pop more than she's done before.

"The Politician" starts the album with a slick, super-pop sheen. The vocal production emphasizes an Annie Lennox-style detachment that fits well with the deeply cynical lyrics, "If nobody knows, tell me what's the crime?" This song sets the mood for the whole project. But, despite the political themes running through Manifestra, McKeown largely overcomes the inherent problems that usually arise. She avoids condescension and stridency, relying on distance and metaphor to soften the edges. She keeps a strong focus on the music, but this is compromised by some poor production decisions: her message gets lacquered over, leaving a plastic perfection. She and her band are quite talented, but the heavy handed engineering blunts the impact, especially on the first couple of songs.

The album finally finds a better balance on "In God We Trust". The intro's skittering syncopation and low, simple keyboard line create a darker, conspiratorial mood. McKeown's knowing tone on the verses challenges, daring us to deny that the game is rigged. The music's polished tension, driven by a staccato guitar complements her tight vocal delivery. The chorus provides some crunchy guitar catharsis to break up the tune.

After the album passes through dreamy pop and updated shout blues, the moody title track stands out as the strongest ear worm in the lineup. "Manifestra" is rooted in a trivially simple guitar riff that shares loose family ties with Booker T. and the M.G.'s "Green Onions" and Tori Amos' "Cornflake Girl". But the bare-bones progression, polished guitar grind, and layered arrangement make a powerful combination. McKeown's spoken blues delivery sounds like a cross between Suzanne Vega and Native American rocker John Trudell. Wisely, she doesn't handcuff herself to speak-singing the whole song; instead. she mixes it up, drifting in and out of melody or slipping in some rap-style flow. Testifying without getting too preachy, her lyrics are an oblique ode to perseverance and a centered sense of morality. The lazy funk groove is infectious, begging for repeat plays.

Some of the later tracks hark back to the sound of Hundreds of Lions, including "Instant Classic", which is a duet with singer/songwriter Ryan Montbleau. This offers a taste of Ani DiFranco filtered through a pop aesthetic. Montbleau's more casual singing style makes for a nice contrast to McKeown's precision. "Baghdad to the Bayou", co-written with liberal icon Rachel Maddow also brings in additional singers. Tackling homeland security, foreign policy, and the oil industry, the funky Louisiana groove can't support the scope of the lyrics. It's interesting to compare it to "Diggin' in the Deep Blue Sea", recorded by David Bromberg and Keb' Mo'. The connections that McKeown and Maddow make are valid, but are hard to coalesce into three and a half minutes.

One last point to bring up is that physical copies of the CD are bundled with a second album, Civics, which features McKeown's solo acoustic performance of Manifestra's songs. Tracks like "The Politician" and "Proof" might turn out a little stronger in this context.

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