Pretty gets a bad rap sometimes. As making records gets easier and cheaper, choices about arrangement and orchestration can be made less and less intentionally, and our ears have become understandably wary of lush, pretty music. Remember Hem? That band’s radio-orchestra-backed, countrypolitan debut felt like a needed splash of color in 2002’s Americana scene. Three albums and eight years later, it’s a crutch. Hem and their imitators proved they were not afraid to use swelling strings and guitar atmospherics to get away with some pretty average songwriting and musicianship.
So you’re forgiven if you’re initially turned off by “Waltz”, the first track on Chicago duo the McMakens’ debut album Sleep Easy. It’s a ballad fronted by a sweet-voiced female vocalist that grows to a politely epic climax of, well, swelling strings and guitar atmospherics. Stick with it, though, and you’ll discover one of the most beautifully crafted pop songs you’ll hear this year.
From the get-go, “Waltz” is pretty clearly about the start of a relationship. “Baby, take your hat off and walk this road with me,” Bonnie McMaken sings over husband Trevor’s unaccompanied piano. Her voice is conversational and inviting, and she gets more persuasive in the second verse: “Baby take your coat off, why don’t you stay awhile?” By the third verse the pair are dancing in the kitchen:
Baby, take your shoes off and come and dance with me
Candles in the kitchen softly flickering
Heaven’s graces fill the spaces between our shadows on the floor
The places where we’ve never ever touched before
Here the arrangement starts to do its share of the work as gentle, pizzicato strings paint the kitchen scene (you can just see the sock feet and flickering shadows) before beginning to build in the chorus as the lyrics get surprisingly existential:
Baby, if I could, maybe I could walk the line between you and I
I could never be as close as you are to yourself
It reads all right on paper, but the execution is perfect: Bonnie’s voice remains gentle during the hopeful first line before making a startling octave jump centered on the two adjacent “I"s, a jump just preceded by the flurry of strings. She rides the melody back down for the resignation of the second line, but the strings stay high and airy. The resignation is short-lived, though; in another octave jump she delivers the hook lines:
Sleep easy, darlin’
Heaven still is lingering
The strings decay, and the unaccompanied piano from the beginning carries us into the bridge. It’s a subtle but powerful moment as lyrics, melody and arrangement work in perfect tandem to deliver a thematic effect: heaven glimpsed on Earth as two people grow closer together.
I spent so much time describing “Waltz” because each of the eleven songs on Sleep Easy bears the same expert craft and deceptive depth. Hem are certainly a benchmark here, as are another husband-and-wife Americana duo, Over the Rhine. But The McMakens set themselves apart by coupling a gentle eclecticism (see: the woozy trip-hop of “Lost at Sea” and the R&B-tinged, 90’s-chick-rock throwback on “Mosaic”) with a commitment to unadorned tradition (see: the a cappella mixed quartet on a beautifully straight-faced cover of “Angels Watchin’ Over Me”). Trevor’s varied musical background certainly plays a part here—he’s a bluegrass guitarist turned classical composer/arranger and pianist. Meanwhile, Bonnie’s voice holds everything together, hopping genres effortlessly. And they cover a lot of ground, all incredibly accessible: I could just as easily imagine The McMakens on A Prairie Home Companion as scoring an indie film, and if I were an AOR radio exec I could find about three singles.
Speaking of Garrison Keillor, one song deserves special mention. “Prayer For a Marriage” is a classical composition, a text setting of a poem the couple found in a Keillor-edited poetry anthology. Combining a classically-mic’d chamber ensemble with jazz piano, a drum kit, Bonnie’s beat-poetry spoken word delivery, a found-sound teakettle and one of the sweetest pop hooks of 2010, “Prayer” is a sexy, unclassifiable masterpiece that must be heard to be believed. Elsewhere on Sleep Easy The McMakens seem almost stubbornly committed to accessibility, but I haven’t heard anything this far-out in a long time.
Sleep Easy is definitely a kitchen-sink album, both in scope and content matter. Domestic imagery abounds, from the candles to the teapot; sleeping, beds and lullabies are especially prevalent. For The McMakens, like many of the great American songwriters, the commonplace points to the sublime, and the everyday is full of moments of great art. These 11 beautiful songs are just vessels for those moments. That two first-time songwriters have crafted something so assured and aesthetically grounded makes it all the more exciting. Yeah, it’s pretty, but it’s also awesome.
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