The first song Alejandro Escovedo ever wrote was “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over.” Some writers are just that good from their first shot. Listening to Live From the Memory Hotel, I get the feeling Mark McKay might be such an artist. The songs here are filled with pungent sadness and palpable desire, sung with the imperfect voice of a rock’n’roll troubadour in the mold of Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. McKay is rarely off mark with this half-acoustic, half-electric collection, a live album that includes material from his debut, Nothing Personal. It’s enough to expect great things from the studio album he’s currently working on with producer (and Steve Earle guitarist) Eric “Roscoe” Ambel.
Desperation can be a beautiful thing, and songs like “Constantine Gardens” and “Nashville” are proof. Lyrically, McKay is most effective where he trusts his instincts and ventures into the abstract. A line like “Constantine gardens appear when you smile / Talk to me, please, bring it back to me” from “Constantine Gardens” may not make much sense outright, but it hits the gut right on target. Same with “She took her ring off slowly and put it on a shelf / I will not be a breaker anymore” from “Nashville.” Or the following line from “Rain”—“And we dance like a hallelujah / And we dance like it used to be.” The smaller moments are microcosms, adding up to much more than simple “loved and lost” tunes.
“Nashville,” “Constantine Gardens,” and “Long Lost Louise”—the only three repeated songs—might have seemed like padding on many albums. Here, done acoustic and electric, they show the versatility of McKay’s songwriting. Both versions work, due in part to the contributions of multi-instrumentalist Kris Delmhorst on the acoustic numbers and June Star as the backing band for added electricity. Delmhorst’s backing vocal and violin lend an appropriately gentle touch, while Andrew Grimm’s Crazy-Horse guitar sound drives the rocking half of the album.
McKay nods to his influences by covering Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and the traditional “Moonshiner,” notably covered by Uncle Tupelo and Bob Dylan. What’s impressive is that McKay can pull it off without seeming smug or calculated. “Moonshiner,” lifted by Vince Mamone’s pedal-steel playing, is a transitional tune, moving the album from acoustic to electric. It’s the only place on the album where you can hear McKay sing with a pedal steel, which is a shame, since they blend so well. And while “Atlantic City” seems the most popular Springsteen cover lately (there are no less than three versions of it in the past couple of years, including Hank Williams III, Mike Rimbaud and John Anderson), McKay and June Star make it burn.
The one misstep is the white-collar blues of “Mercedes,” which sounds like it needs a bit more gestation. Rhyming “snappy” with “crappy” sounds downright amateurish, especially when the song is surrounded by so much quality work. But even that song isn’t without merit. And if your worst song isn’t horrible, you’re doing something right.