Summer Songs: Multi-instrumentalist narrows sound, shines like a songbird
Considering Erin McKeown’s fourth studio album in light of her previous work, she appears to have finally discovered the beauty of reins. Her discography to date—’99’s Monday Morning Cold, 2000’s Distillation and 2003’s Grand—toyed with numerous genres including (but not limited to) swing, jazz, Britpop, garage rock, Tin Pan Alley, New Wave and muddy blues, but the Massachusetts-based 27-year-old has stylistically settled down. At least for the time being.
Maybe she was suffering from Genre-Attention Deficit Disorder (GADD), but what else can you expect from someone who has a bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology from Brown University. She didn’t set out to incorporate a diverse array of musical idioms; it was imbedded in her through years of academia. However, something cured McKeown of her compulsive genre-hopping. Maybe her latest producer Tucker Martine (Modest Mouse, Bill Frisell) insisted on it. Maybe she submitted herself for treatment. Or maybe it was due to the fact that her newest album was recorded in a building that formerly housed a mental institution.
Regardless, McKeown delivers a refreshing batch of breezy folk-pop on We Will Become Like Birds. The songs are perfect for Sunday brunch on the patio, sunny-day walks in the park or catching fireflies at dusk. She’s furnished your summer soundtrack, all you have to do is whistle along.
Instead of performing most of the instruments on the recordings herself—a feat of which she has proven perfectly capable—McKeown and Martine recruited a live band for a more impulsive feel, including Matt Chamberlain (Fiona Apple, Tori Amos) on drums, Sebastian Steinburg (Beth Orton, Soul Coughing) on bass and Steve Moore (Laura Veirs) on keyboards while McKeown covers guitar duties herself. By allowing the instruments to dovetail naturally, the tracks resonate with an organic pureness. The band negates a forcefully overabundant sound—a common foul when multiple talented musicians perform together.
McKeown even manages to rock (softly) by emitting danceable rhythms and catchy guitar licks—enough to make Tift Merritt blush—with “Life On The Moon” and “Bells And Bombs,” while “The Golden Dream” sneaks in, salting the mood with atmospheric pop via collaboration with Argentine folktronica artist Juana Molina.
Just like Neko Case, McKeown flirts sweetly with her most adorable trait: her voice. She’ll carry your soul like a church hymn when she repetitively croons “Hallelujah” on perhaps her most affectionate song yet, “Float.” But it isn’t until her duet with longtime friend and singer/songwriter Peter Mulvey on “Delicate December,” that she truly decides to break your heart: “Elegant and simple / Sentiment means letting go and letting fall / Special for December / Let’s pretend we’re all for one, one for all.”