Filed under: album, review | Tags: erin mckeown, hundreds of lions, matt barton
Hundreds Of Lions ••••
Things have hardly been quiet on the new album front for Erin McKeown lately, with a standards set (2006’s Sing You Sinners) and a live album (2007’s Lafayette) keeping the acclaimed Virginian singer-songwriter on the road, but there’s extra reason to celebrate the arrival of Hundreds Of Lions, her first collection of original material since 2005’s We Will Become Like Birds. Newly signed to Righteous Babe Records, McKeown has a witty, imaginative writing style in common with her new label boss Ani DiFranco, and long-time fans will rejoice at the return of her clear and natural alto, a no-frills instrument that brings a wonderfully effective sophistication to her songs. Newcomers, too, will find much to discover in this richly diverse collection that casts McKeown in a range of different guises.
Opener ‘To a Hammer’ has a sparse yet innovative feel with its plucked strings, horns, woodwinds and periodic cymbal crashes. As with most of the material here, it’s difficult to pigeonhole with the song’s infusions of classical music and jazz defying easy categorisation. Brilliantly old-fashioned and fun, it makes for a beguiling start. The much more modern ‘Santa Cruz’ brings in skittering drum effects as a bed for delicate piano chords as McKeown laces the busier arrangement with the simple repeated hook, “Don’t go”. Elsewhere, the songs are less simple but no less effective. ‘The Lions’, in particular, is sprawling and expansive, with a baroque, noir quality in common with ‘The Foxes’, a suitably playful and nocturnal number in which McKeown sings the winning lyric, “Love can be fun if you don’t put in the work”.
McKeown’s creativity remains in full flow throughout the album, with notable touches including the mournful organ on ‘All That Time You Missed’, handclaps on the enjoyably silly ‘The Rascal’ – essentially a 21st century update of a good-time ‘50s rock and roll song – and the birdsong that brightens the lo-fi ‘Seamless’. And things work just as well when McKeown puts more of the focus on just her voice and her guitar, as on the introspective ‘You, Sailor’, which features the intriguing lyric, “I am aching / you can’t deny me my kingdom”. As McKeown sings of a desire to “sail for warmer climes”, an elegant string arrangement plays the melody at the song’s climax. It’s wonderfully stylish, an adjective which can also be said for ‘The Boats’, a disconsolate jewel that makes superb use of McKeown’s haunting wordless vocals.
Perhaps the album’s most effective and affecting number is ‘(Put The Fun Back In) The Funeral’, a sublime composition that captures the sense of melancholy you’d expect from a song about last goodbyes, but also injects a delightfully creepy feeling of foreboding. The rising melody is instantly memorable, and McKeown’s brilliant vocal is produced in reverb to emphasise the spooky effect. It gets even more sinister when the guitars come in, complemented by low-mixed whispers. It’s moments like this that ultimately makes Hundreds Of Lions worth the wait. Expertly produced and impressively varied, it’s yet another album from McKeown that reveals new depths with repeated listening.
UK release date: 30/11/09; www.myspace.com/erinmckeown
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