Kate McDonnell has won several songwriting contests and has rubbed shoulders with some select company, including opening for Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Kathy Mattea among others. The folksy singer-songwriter started out in the early ‘90s but hasn’t exactly been caught up in the tour-record-promote-tour cycle that lures so many musicians only to spit them back out after a few chews. McDonnell has taken her time with each of her four albums; this time, the result is a lovely offering that isn’t quite the coffeehouse folk you might anticipate, but isn’t the slick, pre-packaged folk-pop that is saturating the market today either.
McDonnell kicks off the 12-track album with “Tumbleweed”, a warm, mid-tempo ditty with a somewhat off-kilter beat that guides it along. McDonnell’s voice isn’t fragile but has a very innocent and pure quality about it. The song picks up with the perfect harmonies from backing vocalist Beth Reineke, making for an effort that might bring to mind Paula Cole or other Lilith Fair fodder. Light and breezy, it’s suited nicely for an adult contemporary audience with a slight edge to it. “Hey Joe” ensues but it’s not that “Hey Joe”, you know, the one consisting a certain Hendrix playing a certain instrument! Here she goes down the same dusty folksy-meets-funky tinged tune that would fit somewhere between Sheryl Crow and Edie Brickell. It’s doesn’t have any surprises though, playing it rather safe and secure from start to finish.
The fade out from “Hey Joe” seems to fit perfectly into the next song, but they don’t continue on seamlessly into “Go Down Moses”. “I got my bread and I got my walking shoes / And I’m leaving this forsaken place and going down with you,” she sings with just an acoustic guitar behind her and light electric guitar touches behind her. McDonnell’s pipes are what fuel this song and it’s quite pleasing, especially as it progresses, although maybe it’s too sappy to some people’s folk appetites. The song which tends to be the most biting political statement is the train-rolling “Mercy” which talks about a “boy king who likes to play at war” and how “the papers say mistakes were made and villagers are dead”. It’s a simple but very appealing tune that makes you think without being too preachy. And her lead-in to the chorus is excellent, almost spine-tingling at times. The drum brushes also add a nice color to the track.
Another highlight is the slow-moving and slow-building “Fires” that has a definite folk-meet-roots pop leaning to it. The most up-tempo or fast-paced song on the album is very melodic and sounds a bit like Lucinda Williams’s “Essence” with its introduction. “Railroad Bill” is your standard folk tune that sounds partially like McDonnell has a jug band behind her on some flatbed truck. Unfortunately the low point has to be the sultry attempt on “Lemon Marmalade” which talks about the sun sticking to everything. It’s average at best but sounds unfocused from the onset. She makes up for this with the gorgeous “Luis” which is one of the three songs she wrote on her own, the other originals being co-written with Anne Lindley. The number also has a certain Celtic flair to it courtesy of Scott Petito’s mandolin plucking. She continues this momentum with the poppy “Mayday” that is made for radio.
The lone cover here is a version of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”. Although not quite up to the original, as most covers are, it is still a very good effort that has McDonnell opening up vocally with great results. It also goes up-tempo a bit more than the original, ambling along at a nice pace. And the fiddle solo during the bridge by Mindy Jostyn is a great plus. She should’ve stopped here as the closing isn’t that strong. Nonetheless, this is a record that is another step on what will continue to be a stairwell to critical acclaim.