Music

Erin McKeown: Hundreds of Lions

Hundreds of Lions has teeth (and, at times, too many).


Erin McKeown
Label: Righteous Babe
UK Release Date: 2009-10-13

Erin McKeown is one of a few contemporary folksingers who has transcended the pigeonhole that traps most of her comrades. It's hard-earned, though, over many releases and tours with the likes of Josh Ritter and Ani diFranco, on whose label Hundreds of Lions appears. Some of her transcendence comes from her songwriting talent: she excels at writing songs that are just oblique enough to be quirky and fresh while still being universal. However, her success also owes something to the orchestral and jazz influences she's been steadily adding to her music over the years. While her early work, such as the excellent Distillation, was primarily McKeown on vocals and guitar, she's been experimenting with bigger sounds on her past few albums. Hundreds of Lions is her fullest album yet, though it wears all its fanfare on its sleeve.

On first listen, there was a dazzling presence to the songs as new, surprising elements kept emerging. After one listen, the songs were familiar. They each had something distinctive about them that stood out, and I found myself feeling like I already knew the album by the second listen. While it's a tribute to McKeown that she doesn't write the same song over and over, she also hasn't left a lot of nuance and subtlety to be uncovered here. As lovely as the jazz-pop influences are, they contribute a certain hardness that multiplies in its proximity to her distinctive voice. She carries a tune well with said voice, but she's not the sort of singer who transmits emotion easily in her voice; her delivery on Hundreds of Lionsis at the same level of emotional intensity no matter what the subject matter. One wonders whether that's a product of McKeown's quirky voice, her general personality, or her efforts at technical perfection and polish being so strong that she loses the energy to do it, as they say, once more with feeling.

Perhaps ditching some of the special effects would bring out more pathos in her work and also give listeners' ears a break from the density of the flashy songs that comprise the album. A song like "The Boats", for instance, would be a perfect opportunity to leave behind the beats and heavy backing vocals and just go it alone with her guitar. As striking as the orchestration on the songs is, it loses its specialness to keep adding in those elements and not let the album take a breath without a string section. (Jon Brion is likely shaking is head in shame at this remark.) It would also leave room for some of the qualities that have made McKeown win over so many fans and critics alike. When her delivery is on, it's on, and it's clever, as in "Rascal": "Oh my rascal / You never stick / You get too close / I'll cut you quick / There ain't no wires hold me back / There ain't no switches on this track / Sail right through your briar patch." Album opener "To a Hammer" also makes good use of her vocal phrasing, the same phrasing that made songs like "Queen of Quiet" and "La Petite Morte" so impossible to forget (or get out of your head). "I will never leave you / And you will never know it / To a player everything is a game", she sings as sugarplum fairy music spins around her.

Hundreds of Lionsis a feel-good album, and there are plenty of standout tracks that will be played time and again -- "Santa Cruz" and "The Lions" are only two of them. This is a fine album with which to introduce McKeown to new fans who will surely be surprised how fun and how fancy folk can be.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image