Sunday, February 4, 2024

CD Odyssey Disc 1709: Lori McKenna

Apologies for my comparatively long absence, gentle readers. I’ve had a very busy work week and right when I thought I’d squirrelled away some down time, went and got myself sick. The worst part of it all, is I had occasion to go out in public dressed as a pirate and had to bow out. The number of times one gets the opportunity to dress up as a pirate in life are limited, and missing even one stings.

Back to music. My last review was released in 1988. This record is called 1988 but came out last year. Coincidence…or conspiracy? You decide.

Disc 1709 is…1988

Artist: Lori McKenna

Year of Release: 2023

What’s up with the Cover? Our artist, ‘guitaring’ away at an undisclosed location. That window looks like any number of small interior town airport windows I’ve stared out of, but your guess is good as mine if this is in a small town, or even at an airport for that matter.

There’s also a logo of some cherub leaning on the year 1988. I’m not sure how this aligns with ‘possible airport window’ particularly since cherubs don’t need to take public transport to fly somewhere.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been a fan of Lori McKenna for quite some time, dating back to discovering her through her 2016 album “The Bird & the Rifle”. Despite the gratuitous and unnecessary use of an ampersand in the album title, I was smitten with her sound and have been buying up her records ever since. “1988” was just the latest release.

How It Stacks Up: I have six Lori McKenna albums. I’d like to have eight, but 2013’s “Massachusetts” and 2014’s “Numbered Doors” are inexplicably hard to find. Like, it’s killin’ me. Anyway, of the six I have, something had to be last and 1988 is it. There’s no shame in it. Lori McKenna makes consistently great records, and competition is fierce.

Rating: 3 stars

Some artists get criticism along the lines of “all their albums sound the same”. This seems like a foolish thing to complain about. Some artists change their sound, some don’t, and for those who don’t, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ACDC is a good example of this phenomenon. Alestorm is another. There are plenty, and holding down the role in the country genre is today’s focus, Lori McKenna.

Lori McKenna doesn’t break any new ground on 1988, and anything you hear on this record is going to remind you of her previous seven records. Homespun small-town wisdom is her stock and trade. Her vocals have a high quaver to them, but never feel breathy. They match wonderfully with her easy guitar strumming and clear, thoughtful lyrics. This is three chords and the truth, distilled down to its purest form.

When you listen to Cypress Hill, you can expect to hear a lot of songs about smoking dope and shootin’ folks. Lori McKenna is similarly consistent thematically, albeit with slightly more sedate subject matter. McKenna likes to sing about the nostalgia of youth, love and loyalty and more than few songs about what it is to age gracefully. Her songs have a small town common sense, and the wisdom of how to quiet the heart, and find joy even in hard times.

The album starts with ground zero for McKenna. “The Old Woman in Me” is an anthem for middle-age, and how to celebrate it. The lines all have a delightful caesura in them that makes everything that comes in the second half of the bar have an even deeper gravitas. It’s an old trick but a good one:

“The old woman in me thinks I look good in these jeans
She remembers what her body did, carrying all those kids
She's narrowed down the truth, she don't even dye her roots
She's proud of the life she lived, says it made her the woman she is”

McKenna has five kids and talks about being a mom a LOT and you get the impression she is, like, the BEST mom ever. Apart from also having an awesome mom, I have no deeper frame of reference for what the experience of being one is like, but McKenna gets me part way there every time she sings one of these tunes.

For all the upbeat tunes McKenna sings – and she does this a lot – she’s perfectly capable of exploring the sadness of ordinary folks as much as she does their victories. The best example on 1988 is “Letting People Down”, which this gem of a quatrain:

“You get up for work every day, you drag yourself right out of bed
The arms of those angels are wrapped around the dreams you left
I look the other way, pretending not to notice
I don't know how it died, but I know where the ghost is”

This is McKenna at her best, pulling your heart strings through the agony of ordinary lives, and the unending complexity that is the human condition.

Because of her subject matter, there is always the danger for McKenna to slide into the trite, and it does happen from time to time on 1988. “Happy Children” is one of those ‘wish good things on you’ type songs with a list of stuff that doesn’t always land. Or maybe I’m just grumpy because McKenna seems to think the happiest thing to wish on someone is that they have happy children. Thanks, but I’ll pass.  

For the most part, though, McKenna delivers authenticity without descent into the maudlin. 1988 isn’t her best collection of songs, but it is still solid entry and head and shoulders above what you might hear on mainstream country radio.

Best tracks: The Old Woman in Me, The Town in Your Heart, The Tunnel

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