Erin McKeown: Sing You Sinners

Erin McKeown
Sing You Sinners

Well, now it’s official: everyone is going to do a jazz standards album. First it was Linda Rondstadt, then Joni Mitchell, then Rod Stewart. Here we have a standards album by Erin McKeown, the kinda-folkie songstress who seemed to hit an indie-pop high note with last year’s We Will Become Like Birds. Coming soon to Dar Williams Sings the Cab Calloway Songbook.

Sing You Sinners is not the usual standards record — no Sinatra-esque big band here, no strings. And the songs are more off-beat than usual. But still, the composers here — Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer — make it a definite standards record. What McKeown has done — or so it seems to this jazz record geek — is not to choose from the great songwriters as much as to cherry-pick tasty tunes associated with her favorite jazz vocalists: two from Blossom Dearie, one from Anita O’Day, two from Nat Cole, a Sinatra ballad, and — because McKeown is flatly obsessed with her — another Judy Garland classic.

The good news: for the most part “Ms. McKeown” (as she is affectedly known to her fans) attacks these Tin Pan Alley tracks with aggression and originality. The core band is a jazz quartet — her own guitar with piano/bass/drums — plus a ragtag three-piece horn section, arranged in many cases in a jazz style that sounds like a hopped-up “jump” band such as Louis Jordan’s Timpani Five. In other cases, Sam Kassirer jumps from the ivories to Wurlitzer e-piano or organ, or McKeown plunks banjo, further dirtying up the basic swing sound of the rhythm section.

A well-known tune such as “Paper Moon”, for example, is nicely remade here. Drummer Allison Miller goes into a Latin polyrhythm and acoustic bassist Todd Sickafoose plays a vamp — no straight swing at all. Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” is entirely reharmonized in an electric mood, with McKeown cheating the famous melody to fit the pedal-tone style. “Melody” (the only original in the collection) is played as a Jelly Roll-ish rag with a bridge that cops the changes to “I Got Rhythm” — a rough-and-tumble, fun band workout that emphasizes the leader’s affection for old-timey music.

On these tracks, McKeown seems to be playing favorite jazz songs, sure, but in the direction of her strength — slightly herky-jerky theater music, kind of a folky Tom Waits with a serious jones for the old band singers. When the arrangements get a bit more rockish and electric — as on the rockabilly take on the usually Andrews Sisters-sounding “Thanks for the Boogie Ride” — this record does not seem so distant from Birds.

The bad news: McKeown’s affection for her influences hems her in quite a bit too. The two songs copped from Blossom Dearie serve merely to expose McKeown as a singer pretty darn uncomfortable with jazz. “It Might as Well Be Spring”, done straight as can be with swinging piano trio accompaniment, finds the leader occasionally out of tune and rhythmically leaden. The truth is, McKeown’s voice has always sounded sort of schm-ugly — nasal and muffled and vaguely of another era. If you know Dearie’s effortless, swinging version, this pale imitation just stabs you in the soul. “Rhode Island Is Famous For You” is a comic novelty song of incredible charm, and the horns lead the way on a rollicking arrangement. But the vocals are hard to understand and plodding — a distant third (at best) to Dearie’s winking zinger and even John Pizzarelli’s hilarious live versions.

A few other songs have this flat, faux-jazz vibe too: “Something’s Got to Give” (arranged for tasty McKeown guitar and brushed drums), “I Was a Little Too Lonely”, and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”. Nothing here to offend, really, and fans new to these songs will be well-served by discovering the great songwriting and melodies. Her Waller cover, “If You a Viper” and the one tune totally new to me, “Sing You Sinners”, both compensate — they’re rougher and let McKeown get Waits-ier and old-timier. Better.

But maybe this is a jazz snob’s review of a record that will mainly be listened to by the uninitiated. It could be a snazzy introduction to jazz for yet another generation of open-minded music fans. The All Music Guide’s take on McKeown’s cover of the Garland hit “Get Happy” makes my point. Jo-Anne Greene writes: “McKeown and her backing trio, … turn the song inside out, threading it through myriad musical styles, from its champagne piano intro, across the shifting sands of jazz, into R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, and out into ’60s surf.” Truth is, all respect to Greene and the AMG, it’s a straight jazz arrangement in every respect — driving swing, a piano solo, and a boppy horn arrangement — that Greene has “heard” as R&B, rock and surf because she probably doesn’t listen to much jazz. Here’s hoping that Greene and other McKeown fans dig into more Waller, Cole, Dearie, and the like as a result.

Me, I’ve always been both a jazz fan and a McKeown fan, particularly a fan of Birds. I’ll be leaving Sing You Sinners mostly on the shelf, though I’ve already ripped the weirder songs for my iPod. Here’s hoping that the lovely Ms. McKeown returns to her broader-brush pop music (or her weirder, old-timey origins) while leaving the Nat Cole tunes to John Pizzarelli and Diana Krall. I hate to be a musical segregationist, but sometimes it’s a question of exploiting your strengths.

Erin McKeown has plenty of those, but floating a harmonically complex melody over a swinging rhythm section isn’t her bag. And Sing You Sinners simply isn’t her best notion. Oddly, the CD booklet includes a stilted interview with the artist in which she “explains” her desire to record standards and the interviewer gushes about how funny “Rhode Island” is. It smacks of a certain defensiveness. Erin McKeown is too good at her own music to have to squirm as a faux jazz singer. Next time out, with some fresh songs, I bet she doesn’t feel obligated to explain the music.

RATING 6 / 10