Tuesday, March 10, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1349: Angie McMahon

I got home from work in time to see the third period of my Bruins beating the Philadelphia Flyers. Go Bruins!

Disc 1349 is…Salt
Artist: Angie McMahon

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Angie McMahon chills in her overalls. I could never appreciate overalls. They’re like ill-fitting jeans that make it complicated to use the toilet. I guess they’re useful if you want to paint a wooden fence or something, like that one behind her. Maybe that's the plan.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review of this album somewhere but can’t remember where. The usual suspects are Paste Magazine, Pitchfork, or maybe American Songwriter?

Anyway, I couldn’t find that review, but I’m writing my own anyway, so it matters little.

How It Stacks Up: “Salt” is McMahon’s debut album, so there isn’t anything to stack it up against yet. Fun fact, though – she’s on a Tom Waits cover record called “Come On Up to the House” where she does a lovely version of “Take It With Me”.

I’ll talk about that record when I roll it. For now, let’s get back on track.

Ratings: 3 stars

Angie McMahon is an old soul in a couple of ways. First, she was previously in a soul band called The Fabric. Second, she has that world-weary quality that I associate with old souls.

“Salt” is more atmospheric indie rock than soul, although McMahon’s musical stylings hark back to her previous incarnation. Her vocals are big, rounded and smokey around the edges. Her range is significant, having a watery warble at the low end and a breathy whisper in the high. Her guitar is a good match to this sound; atmospheric and resonant. McMahon plays it sparsely but still fills a room.

When she rocks it out a bit, as she does on “Keeping Time,” the effect is powerful, hitting you like a series of cresting waves. The song benefits from a catchy guitar riff that grounds the song’s rhythm and lets her warble above and below the melody as the mood moves her.

There is also a melancholia to her, best evidenced on “Slow Mover,” which starts off with a tiring evening of seeking a fried chicken stand at 4 a.m., and progresses to darker explorations of a relationship with lines like:

“He thinks we could make it work
But only when he’s drunk
You think you could help me swim
But I’ve already sunk.”

Well…that’s uplifting. For all that, early on with this record I was enjoying the sad wallow of it all. McMahon’s vocals are raw and honest, and they leave you with the impression that she’s lived a lot of life in a short period of time (that old soul thing again).

It helps that every few songs she drops what I would call a crowd-pleaser; something slightly more up-tempo and with a catchy riff. The last of these, “Pasta” is also the best. It isn’t fast or danceable, but it has the same kind of slow chugging power of Joan Jett’s version of “Crimson and Clover,” slow, and deliberate and tough as hell.

Pasta” is a brilliant exploration of depression, complete with a manic section halfway through where she tries to pull herself out of the funk, with limited success. It’s a sad song, but it’s also warm blanket of belonging to something. When McMahon repeatedly sings her refrain of “I’ve been lost, I’ve been lost, I’ve been lost…for a while” it becomes an immersive emotional experience.

Unfortunately, it feels like as “Pasta” comes to an end, so does the energy of the record. The final third of the album consists of four songs that become progressively more inward and disconnected. McMahon appears to be trying to dig even deeper into a general mood (one of the songs is even called “Mood Song”) but the record at this point starts to feel self-indulgent rather than comforting.

It doesn’t help that with her vowel-heavy delivery and natural warble, she doesn’t always enunciate the lyrics to the songs, opting instead for raw emotional delivery. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it makes me frustrated as I only catch two out of every three words.

McMahon has a boatload of talent, both as a performer and a songwriter. She’s not afraid to let you dive deep into her own fear and uncertainty. When she does it well, you get emotionally resonant mood pieces. When she misses, she leaves you with fragments of ideas that need more focus. For all that unevenness, it is a solid debut, and I’m excited to see where she goes from here.

Best tracks: Keeping Time, Slow Mover, Pasta

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