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