Christy McWilson is often described as the queen of Seattle alt.country. While it’s true her version of country is not anyone’s idea of Nashville (for one thing, her voice is too good, absolutely angelic riding above a staunch rockabilly ensemble), it’s still a bit unfair to push a talent like McWilson to the edges like that. More especially so when attempting to come to terms with Bed of Roses, her second release and a genuinely inspired collaboration with Dave Alvin. A gifted songwriter, McWilson wrote 10 of the album’s 12 tracks in her own tough idiosyncratic roots style.
Her writing voice doesn’t strike me as a pose, but her style of talking about life brings into question commonly held conventions. She sometimes exposes the modern superwoman myth (cheerfully juggling the demands of wife-mother-career without working up a bead of emotional sweat) as just that, a myth other people perpetuate. For those who maintain women (or men) are obliged to believe that living happily ever after necessarily follows saying “I do”, McWilson could be as socially confusing as a stranger who reminds a woman of community property rights after hearing a couple quarrel in public. Male critics nearly without exception write cluelessly about McWilson’s music, and quickly diagnose her as suffering from some female complaint, not as bad as on-the-rag, but maybe she’s depressed. Or maybe, they opine, she’s not depressed, because she sure sounds breezy so it can’t be that serious. The reality might be that girls get a little burned out sometimes, even when they’re doing all the things they thought they wanted to do and still want to do. Christy McWilson appeared as back-up singer “Crispy” McWilson on some Young Fresh Fellows records. For her own outings, she writes and sings darn good songs that many people can understand.
In “Life’s Little Enormities”, she confesses that the possible joys of having children naturally mixes with the terror, acknowledging the lifetime of responsibilities and uncertainties when bringing another life into the world. Perhaps more daunting when both parents work as musicians and with what that lifestyle sometimes entails. But McWilson lyrically addresses these issues in a charming and intelligent manner. Her feelings are expressed musically by a slightly weird and humorous arrangement of a genre-splicing psychedelicized folk-rock experiment. It was gentle folk-rock, remember, that first rocked the Beatles out of their number one slots on American airwaves and sales. And of all the new popular genres to arise, it was gentle folk-rock that first spoke most simply, directly, and honestly about the growing pangs of confusion about society’s demands and alienation from mainstream thought.
As soon as “Life’s Little Enormities” kicks in with a psychedelic-style guitar that sets the musical era, McWilson sings her silky way along through the bouncy track, lyrically talking about her motherhood and children in rich simile. “They fell from the heavens like a fate I couldn’t dodge / The bundles of joy clasped to my chest like a corsage / I stand like a giant with a world around my knees / Life’s little enormities”. When she also shares the realization that “Even a redwood can be toppled by a breeze” is also one of life’s little enormities, it soon becomes obvious this tune isn’t just rock-a-bye-billy nor strictly speaking pop. The chorus verse ascends with the recognizable harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas, and the vision of the great round earth mother and her musical companions is suddenly complete. Quirky humor becomes bent, more especially if you’ve seen any of the tabloid accounts of the Mamas and Papas horrific approach to child-rearing. There’s a tape loop of a backwards guitar solo in the middle of the song that initially hearkens back the Beatles of the era (“She Said She Said”), reminding us any trip can go bad. These complex reactions to the realities of raising families might be a more current topic of concern now that families are about to be legislated.
McWilson’s cover of Moby Grape’s “8:05”, with Dave Alvin’s deep bass voice rumbling beneath in duet, is currently receiving the most air play. Apparently it’s all right to express abject deep misery in a love song, as that’s somehow predictable and easily understood. On the other hand, McWilson’s own lyrical mood piece “Sheep Song” inexplicably presents the most challenge to the critics. Even though the reason for her brooding isn’t pinpointed, the song is such an effective and evocative moodscape. Her expressive imagery is pulled straight from nature, and is eloquent in simplicity. “The dog barks at nothing / And the cat sleeps all day / Sometimes I worry / I’m headed that way”.
Everybody of a certain age remembers the song the Youngbloods made famous back when Reagan was somehow elected Governor of California just as our country became further mired in a bloody war overseas. The Youngbloods soared out a melody that captured the spirit of times perfectly and soon seemed symbolic if not anthemic for an entire generation. You’re probably thinking, “Come on people, now, let’s get together . . . ” but the one I mean is “Darkness, Darkness”. On this version, Alvin’s fuzzy Telecaster provides the swirling dark introduction. McWilson’s voice is perfectly suited for this song, especially the echoing out-of-phase voice-overs, naturally possessing a mixture of fragility and passion that can seldom be expressed by the same voice. One vocal effect not reduplicated is Jesse Colin Young’s phrasing using Middle Eastern voice stylings, but it’s kind of there if any of us heard the original and are remembering comparatively.
On this shimmering presentation called Bed of Roses, we learn again that life is true to nature and there are more thorns than blossoms. Accepting that reality accounts for the steely determination heard throughout all of McWilson’s songs. But there are also some upbeat numbers as full of sweet yearning as true grit, holding out a determined hope for what is best in spite of it all. The swinging “True Believer” is rocked along by the effortless glide of solid rockabilly, “Deep in the night I can hear you crying / The pain in the world is mystifying / But somehow I still want to believe in love”.