[7 January 2002]
Shannon McNally’s bluesy voice brings a level of earthiness to Jukebox Sparrows that separates it from the general crop of albums by female singer/songwriters. Absent are the traditional wispy flourishes that try to elevate simple songs to some sort of higher understanding. McNally is here in the real world, and although her music is straightforward and accessible, she gives it power through her warm voice and elegant arrangements. Jukebox Sparrows may not contain many surprises in terms of lyrics or style, but it is thrilling nonetheless.
Opening with the sexually charged “Down and Dirty”, McNally makes it immediately evident the tone that Jukebox Sparrows is going to take. While not every song is as overt, there is a thread of obvious sensuality running through McNally’s songs, providing an easy-going passion to her album, from the soulful loneliness of “Bolder Than Paradise” to the seductive playfulness of “Bitterblue”. Her voice and music are emotive enough to carry her message to listeners without much effort. Most of Jukebox Sparrows is fairly apparent, but this makes it all the more effective. The musicians that back her don’t stand out, but provide the right backdrop to showcase the most important feature of McNally’s music—her voice. Everything else, even her lyrics, is just an accessory. She could be singing nonsense words and still make her listeners feel it.
Even though they do display McNally’s charm and wit, her lyrics possess the same upfront openness that rest of Jukebox Sparrows does. It works for her, as McNally isn’t trying to prove to anyone what an amazing poet she can be. Despite the fact that lines like “Now that I know what I got / I know I had it all along” may not be expressing an original sentiment in any original way, when McNally sings it, it does more to show her the joy of her love than any flowery language ever could. Even on “Start All Over”, which may be her most poetic song, she still doesn’t resort to overwrought language. “All this dreaming drives me crazy, but is it dreaming if it’s all I ever do?” she whispers. Her plain words give McNally an everywoman quality. It’s not hard to understand what she means, and Jukebox Sparrows is all the better for it.
Some songs are a bit drawn out, and while McNally can sustain them, she stops developing new ideas. “Colorado”, with its barely restrained longing, could have been a deeply effective track, but the slow pace and minimal accompaniment unfortunately works against it. By the time it ends, it’s easy to have become bored with it. Likewise, “Bury My Heart on the Jersey Shore” has a limited appeal and moves McNally away from her more universal themes. Notably, these two songs are the longest ones on the album, and while McNally mostly has a good sense of where to start and where to stop, these couple songs keep Jukebox Sparrows from being perfect. The album would’ve been stronger if these two songs had been left off. They don’t ruin the album, but they do hold it back from feeling as complete as it could have.
Overall, though, it’s almost impossible to have too many complaints about Jukebox Sparrows. McNally’s unguarded voice and simple compositions reveal a heartfelt passion that is genuine and emotional. There are no illusions here, but just a set of effortlessly accessible songs. Even though Jukebox Sparrows makes a couple mistakes along the way, it is an impressive debut that clearly shows the abilities of this powerful singer and songwriter.