With a louche saunter and a thick, descending ripple of horn punctuations, Erin McKeown opens her first self-released album with a high-ironic colonic that skewers double-dealing public servants with their flaccid protest “If nobody knows, tell me what’s the crime?” Brazen, thick cocktail jazz, “The Politician” declares protest music doesn’t have to be strident, acoustic or boring.
Instead, the Massachusetts-based singer/songwriter delivers a supremely listenable record that employs gorgeous melodies, intriguing rhythmic structures, and arrangements that are brilliantly alive—yet never for the sake of how “awesome” the production sounds. Manifestra is a smart record even before the lyrics are considered.
But the lyrics, excavating cultural betrayal, hypocrisy and (un)awareness’ inertia, are a massive wake-up call set to layered vocals, blasts of phased electric guitars, hand claps and layers of keyboards. In other words, this is the most confectionary-sounding cautionary tale ever rendered.
The tumbling ska of “The Jailer” suggests no consequence can suppress informed action once activated, while the slinking soul steam of “Baghdad to the Bayou” tackles the deceptions of wars fought for corporate interests, the sacrificial truths and innocent lives compromised in the name of profits. Even her sweetly purred “Instant Classic,” featuring Ryan Montbleau, has a moaning “oh oh oh oh…” chorus that’s almost porn soundtrack-evoking as it stacks American totems in the name of pandering to “hit song” templates.
That’s McKeown’s genius: her ability to take what is, twist it into something more relevant and maintain whatever it is about the music that makes it work. Smarter pop? Seductive commentary? REALLY? Yes.
“Proof,” an elegantly spare ballad, is an homage to the undoing of everything she’s calling out. A love song on the surface, it’s also a testimonial to how politicians and corporate structures corrupt, all indicted as a glistening string pad cuts through the lush chorus of “only you and I can’t be proof.”
Maybe that’s the best part: how deceptively she conjures the musical aspect of her clever pop truth-telling. “In God We Trust,” with its pillowy “ahh-ahh-ah-ahh”s, is a post-punk-pop girl group moment suggesting Bananarama at their silkiest, but as the high hat rolls and the cymbals crash, she interweaves a chunk of “America The Beautiful” and turns up the heat on God and religion as instruments of agenda, not faith.
Brown-educated, the singer/songwriter understands the halls of power as well as the mechanics of song structure and the ensnaring power of propulsive rhythm. As she picks you up, sweeps you away, suddenly you realize how much wool is being pulled over your eyes. And you can dance to it.