The live album is a funny thing. At its best, it’s a record of an artist at her peak or a particularly memorable show. At its worst, the live album is a study in narcissism. It’s true, there are bands out there that sound even better live than recorded, but more often all that studio production and aural airbrushing gloss over unpleasant truths about a singer’s shortcomings. Erin McKeown’s new live effort, Lafayette, is certainly not the most self-indulgent album you will hear this year, but neither is it the most entertaining or noteworthy. It is, instead, the uneven record of a singer-songwriter attempting to find a place for her eclectic, swinging, and very personal brand of pop. It sounds like she should be having fun, and her band sounds great, but the strain in her voice can’t be denied. Maybe if she relaxed a little bit her listeners could do the same, instead of waiting uncomfortably for her voice to break or her alto to turn into a whisper, as I found myself doing.
The album was recorded over two nights in January of this year at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan’s East Village. The cover is adorned with shots of the shows, McKeown smiling broadly in a pinstripe suit, looking like The L Word’s answer to Brian Setzer. Her previous personas have run the gamut from pigtailed girl-singer (Grand) to assured interpreter of classics (Sing You Sinners, her most recent and most accomplished album). Leslie Feist owes McKeown a debt of gratitude, as it’s hard to imagine her ode-to-simple-living “Mushaboom” without McKeown’s 2003 ditty, “Born to Hum”, playing in the back of the head of anyone who’s heard it. McKeown’s alto has always had a distinctive vibrato, a throwback technique that is one of the reasons why she seems so at home singing Cole Porter and Fats Waller. This vibrato sets her voice apart from her peers and gives her recordings an old-fashioned touch of intimacy.
Unfortunately, that’s lost in this live setting. In the slow burner “You Were Right About Everything”, McKeown’s phrasing pops some of the songs lyrics but then fades out quickly, adding unnecessary pauses in between words. At the very end of the song, she has a chance to let it all hang out and really belt, but she sounds as if she missed the mic, and the rhythm section churns away while McKeown’s voice is lost in back. Phrasing problems dog “Fast As I Can” as well. It’s just McKeown and her guitar here, and her deliberate attempts to keep the guitar sounding lazy and behind the beat hold back her singing. If the album doesn’t always do her voice justice, it is a great showplace for McKeown’s considerable guitar talents. During songs like “Blackbirds” and “Thanks for the Boogie Ride” her solos are full of attitude, taking the focus away from the solid “Little Big Band” that backs her and reminding the listener that McKeown can be the rocking-out equal of any bandleader today.
McKeown sounds more comfortable with standards and her own older songs, and on a fan favorite like “Slung-Lo” we finally hear why someone decided a live album would be a good idea. The addition of a small horn section gives her much-needed support, and the whole song has a relaxed, easy feel that recalls the best of her studio efforts. “Thanks for the Boogie Ride” and “Melody” were Sing You Sinners standouts that are a lot of fun here, despite the vocal polish issues. Album closer “Blackbirds” is the best track here, a folk song dressed in a funk song’s clothing. Here, all the parts add up: brassy horns, a tight rhythm section, McKeown’s easy vocals and her blistering guitar make me wish I had made it out to Joe’s Pub one of those cold nights in January. It’s too bad that the rest of the album reminds me of why I decided to stay home.