It’s hard to figure how pop music could get much more varied and intriguing than the work being done by American women these days. The soul and bubble-gum divas who rule the airwaves have perfected a certain kind of riveting, ear-worm immediacy, country singers like Shelby Lynne are telling incredible stories, and the more “artsy” singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple made 2012 a banner year for super-smart and self-conscious music that jams together traditions from Joni Mitchell to Radiohead in incredible ways.
Manifestra is the latest album in the latter tradition—a brilliant and imaginative album from Erin McKeown that won’t produce any hits but that gives you faith in how pop music can be both high art and great fun at the same time.
McKeown is a young-ish singer-songwriter who got her start as a kind of offbeat folkie, but she’s made a point of becoming uncategorizable in the last eight years. Her early releases (Monday Morning Cold from 1999, Distillation from 2000, and Grand from 2003) shifted across an interesting terrain—from some stuff that sounded like it was from a Slam Poetess With An Acoustic Guitar to some jokey material that traded on older styles of music to carefully crafted material that told interesting stories. She might have seemed like a more soft-edged Ani DiFranco or an updated version of Suzanne Vega. McKeown’s penchant for morphing from track to track was notable, even if her gauzy, conversational voice tied it all back to a single persona.
With 2007’s We Will Become Like Birds, however, McKeown seemed to fulfill her promise. Birds was a full-hearted album of smart pop music, a complete album with a clear voice that carried over from track to track. The arrangements were vibrant and rich, and the songs were smart, mature, and emotional. And Manifestra is very much in that musical vein. McKeown’s last two albums were more curiosities, perhaps. Sing You Sinners featured some fairly clunky transformations of jazz standards, and 2009’s Hundreds of Lions was a genre-hopping exercise. 2013 finds McKeown playing music that sounds current and strong once again: less whimsical and much more gripping.
Manifestra is, however, more political and serious than her prior albums. Released on her own label and funded by fans via the Internet, the new record is rich in a new way. It clatters with real concerns and with less cuteness. It makes sense that it features plenty of hip percussion because it is a record that comes at you with urgency. There is very little sense that McKeown is role-playing here. She comes at you direct. The opener, “The Politician”, speaks in the voice of its subject, but it’s a sardonic indictment built on a strong, syncopated backbeat and a set of beefy guitar parts and gutbucket horns.
“In God We Trust” leans on percussion as well, the kind of clattering percussion heard in hip-hop, intersecting streams of different patterns with burbling electronic keyboard sounds acting as percussion as well, then throbbing rock guitar that busts the song out into its jubilant bridge, which quotes “America, the Beautiful” is a canny way.
“Histories” also sets McKeown’s lyrics atop a percussive bed, with drums and handclaps swirling with strings and electric guitar. The words and singing are still poetic in way that the artist’s earlier “folkie” work may have been, but the urgency of the groove takes a whole lot of the “fey” out McKeown’s work. “The Jailer” thrives on a soul lick for guitar and horns over another strong (electronic?) drum groove. The lyrics are at least indirectly about capital punishment, about the culture of a country that has the state put people to death, and KcKeown’s personal activism comes through not only in the words but in how the music lurches at the ear.
The political McKeown is certainly on display in “Baghdad to the Bayou”, with lyrics co-written with TV opinionater and journalist Rachel Maddow. Needless to say, this tune gets a treatment laced with the funky push-pull of New Orleans music. But the sweet fun of that loose sound is contrasted with the sour bite of a cynical story about oil companies and profits and war and the need to “watch the watcher”. But if every songwriter who chose to get preachy political dipped her argument in this kind of greasy goodtime music, protest music would have a much groovier reputation.
Even a “prettier” song like “Proof” has an admirable directness on this recording—the pulsing brushes against a snare drum and a guitar that is throbbing under McKeown’s fuzzy-pleasant voice. Strings come in on this tune (and elsewhere), but they bring body rather than sweetener; they thicken the sound rather than smooth it out. The lyrical side of McKeown surfaces elsewhere too. But the love song “Instant Classic” (a duet with Ryan Montbleau) is sweet but also set on a swinging little groove (buffeted by baritone sax licks) that is not merely pretty.
The best thing about listening to Manifestra, then, is not the great variety of Eric McKeown’s talents but rather the focus she brings to this particular album. This is an urgent recording, not a pop classic like We Will Become Like Birds, but a rhythmically vital message that uses a smaller set of sounds to create a gripping band sound to support an interesting and worthy point of view. It’s fun and thrilling to listen to even if you don’t focus on the words. But if you do dig the lyrics (and you should), the music becomes a contrast and a complement, a lens for hearing things even better. Rather than putting on different musical costumes here, Erin McKeown has mainly chosen to play one solid role.
And it’s a winning role. You won’t be able to keep your ears off her this time out.
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