October 13, 2009

Erin McKeown Too Tame for Hundreds of Lions

Considering the eclectic dimensions of her music, it’s become increasingly hard to put a line on Erin McKeown. On her official website, though, she calls herself a “funky folk artist” and — so long as if by “funky” she means more “free-spirited and quirky” and less “she’s a very kinky girl, the kind you don’t home to mother” — the description seems just about right.

At least that's how she's come across in the past on great records like Grand and We Will Become Like Birds. And that's likely how she intended to come across on her latest release (out Tuesday, October 13) on the Righteous Babe label, Hundreds of Lions.

Essentially a hit-and-miss effort, however, the album lacks the overall quality and cohesion she’s proven herself capable of producing time and again. There are redeeming moments to be sure, which besides their inherent quality further underscore how much better the rest of this work could have been. The witty and wonderful opening track, "To A Hammer," is one such (albeit fleeting) indication.

The standout here is "The Lion," which best reflects McKeown's creative depth and quirky imagination. She tells a blissfully tongue-in-cheek, metaphorical tale of circus lovers (both of them acrobats!) that serves as a commentary on negative perceptions toward homosexuality (which she coyly refers to as "the freak show our mothers warned us about"). The music is as precocious as the narrative, its sing-a-long chorus yielding to more eccentric fits and starts of musical theater.

Other highlights include "28" — which is immersed in a pensive, spectral aura even as it succumbs to a glorious onslaught of percussion — and, while originally introduced on McKeown’s live album, Lafayette, “You, Sailor” maintains the austerity of that solo performance to yield one of this album’s most tender moments.

The tracks that round out Hundreds of Lions, in one way or another, are bereft of the distinctions that the ones mentioned have in spades. From the indiscriminate haze of "The Boat" to the electronica lament of “All That Time You Missed” to the morbid and monotonous dirge of “(Put The Fun Back In The) Funeral” — its refrain of “I can’t breathe” echoed ad nauseum — most of them seem to suffer from a lackadaisical malaise.

Anyone familiar with Erin McKeown's music knows that lethargy isn't her strong suit. She's a strikingly resonant songwriter and a vibrant performer. A good portion of songs on this album is a testament to that; unfortunately, a greater portion is not.