Paul McKenna is an up-and-coming Scottish guitarist and vocalist whose band has been attracting attention in folk-music circles since the 2009 release of his debut album, Between Two Worlds, and its 2011 follow-up, Stem the Tide. Now comes Elements, the third album in the career of the singer and the band that bears his name. Sporting a couple of traditional tunes and a pile of originals, it’s an innocuous enough collection, but one whose rough edges have been sanded down rather too much. It’s undeniably pretty and listenable, and McKenna himself has a smooth, expressive voice, but there’s not much more to it than that.
Not surprisingly, the traditional songs are the best of the bunch (there’s a reason they’ve been remembered and sung for centuries), and frankly it’s a shame there are only two. “Mickey Dam” is a toe-tapping number that tells the story of the titular character who—if I’m hearing it right, which I’m not sure I am—takes revenge on a mouse, while “Michael Hayes” is a lively, guitar-driven tune, one whose defiant tone is well suited to its tale of murderous violence.
As “Michael Hayes” demonstrates, traditional folk tunes are often surprisingly dark, relating woes that reflect the grim reality for many people through the ages in tales of murder and lust, exploitation and poverty. So it’s something of a surprise to find so little darkness in this album, despite its heavy traditional influence.
This isn’t to forget the original compositions altogether, or to characterize them as entirely forgettable. The best of the lot is “Cold Missouri Waters"m which tells the tale of a firefighter caught in an uncontrollable blaze, who manages to survive it when many of his fellows do not. Album opener “Lonely Man” offers a portrait of an elderly gentleman looking back on his life and features one of McKenna’s most affecting vocal performances. But there are moments of weak sentimentality as well, from the going-back-to-the-auld-country of “Indiana” to the lethargic “Mother Nature” and “Take Your Time” to the unappealingly saccharine album closer “No Ash Will Burn”.
Throughout the album, the production is crisp and clean, with a warm organic sound from the guitars and bouzouki, the whistles and bodhran. As mentioned, the sound is perhaps a little too warm and fuzzy. There is very little edge here, and little to engage a listener looking for more than just a pretty song. In performance, perhaps, some of these numbers would have a bit more bounce—especially “Mickey Dam” and the spry instrumental “Flying Through Flanders”—but on the album, they are buffed to a homogenous sheen.
That said, the musicianship is first rate. David McKnee’s bouzouki sparkles, and the bodhran of Ewan Baird lends some tunes a certain propulsive verve, as you would expect from a bit of bass-heavy handheld percussion. McKenna himself has a rich tenor whose brogue wraps itself around his elongated vowels. In the service of a more compelling set of songs, these elements would have certainly resulted in a more memorable offering.
Ultimately, this is probably of little to concern to McKenna’s admirers, of whom he doubtless has many. This is a record that will please fans, heavy on traditional elements but with plenty of new tunes to show that the band isn’t just standing still. Fans of pretty traditional music will love it. Just don’t expect many rough edges.
// Notes from the Road
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