Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Three Okie Tunes

Note: I know these people and they are all great folks for whom I am very glad for their various successes!
Now well into a music career that began when she was still in high school, Maggie McClure's new full-length album Time Moves On highlights the maturity that a few years of living can give to an artist's songwriting. She still focuses on relationships and exploring their various ins, outs, ups, downs and how those can be navigated, but she does so as someone with a little bit more of an adult perspective and experience.

The maturity shows most clearly on the album closer, "It's Alright," in which McClure reflects on the end of a relationship -- although she sings, "maybe we can turn back time," her voice belies the belief, and she follows by saying "but if we don't, it's alright." Sometimes being an adult means knowing that wanting something badly enough isn't enough. The couple at the core of "Reset" both seem to understand that maybe they are both wrong, and that they could both give up a little in order to work through a situation. And in "Central Time," the Oklahoma-born-now-Los-Angeles-based McClure muses about how roots are important, but they exist to nourish you to stretch yourself. She both wants and doesn't want to leave the "central time" zone, but in the end accepts that in order to do something she wants she may have to move on.

Like her earlier work, Time is sprightly, piano-based pop, although one or two of the songs offer up some more guitar, like "Troubled Heart." McClure puts her songs square in the best part of her register, phrasing and singing a little like mid-90s Lisa Loeb. It's a particular style of music, and it may seem like there's a glut of piano pop woman singers on the airwaves, but McClure's simplicity and directness help her make her own mark with her work.
Weatherford, Oklahoma's Green Corn Revival went through some significant changes following their first full-length album, 2010's Say You're a Sinner. Co-vocalist Natalie Houck and her husband Ryan, who played guitar and just about anything else with strings, moved on to their own project, Honeylark (see below), along with drummer Kenny Holloway.

Vocalist/guitarist Jared Deck is now much more of a solo singer; his wife Jacy handles keyboards and backs him up along with Cora Gutel. The Decks also handle the majority of the songwriting, collaborating on three tracks while Jared alone pens the rest.

Obviously. a shakeup like this changes things beyond just lineups. As mentioned above, Jared Deck and Natalie Houck were more or less co-leads, and Deck solo sounds different. He has the same power and range and uses it just as effectively as before, though, and by October 2013 the revamped lineup was ready to release Bound for Glory with help from Kickstarter.

The band is still traveling through many of the same areas, reflecting on relationships with wry introspection and sometimes upon larger matters, not always with the same effect. "You never realize what the future could hold until it's broken," Deck sings in "Hall of Mirrors." "The places you would try to conceal all the lies have been conceded," he continues a little later, apparently wondering if the hall of mirrors he's been building can show anything as it really is.

Glory digs deep into the imagery of both America and the Great Plains and fuses them: "Waving wheat take me back to the seed/Bathe me in an ocean of dust/The watcher waves her mighty torch to the sea/Bring me your poor and your crushed," Deck sings in "Give Me Liberty."

But sometimes the words hang together cleverly but don't hold together to point anywhere. "When a man rob God/he's a-robbin' me," Deck sings in "I'm Alive." "But the banker and the preacher, they can rob for free...good God/Thank God/For the I.R.S." Anybody who thinks he's being robbed by banks and churches but looks to the Internal Revenue Service for protection is due for some second thoughts -- and the rest of the song has a similar problem. Many songs offer a listener several understandings to select from, maybe even varying between listenings depending on the listeners' moods or experiences. But ambiguity is more of a "Hmmm" than a "Huh?" and here I'm left with more of the latter.

A couple of other songs try to work around similar issues, but the sound of the record is still awesome. Even "Alive" is an irresistable earworm with hooks woven around the kind of Sergio Leone-meets-the-Ramones sound that made Sinner such a great listen. GCR is definitely a band trying to find out where it's going after so many changes, but Road is an excellent start even if it has a few steps back (or sideways) mixed in with its forward motion.
As mentioned above, Natalie and Ryan Houck, along with Kenny Holloway, moved on from Green Corn Revival in 2012 to form their own project, Honeylark. A few songs and a video dripped out over the following months, with the release of their first album, Heavy, in December 2013.

The Houcks were feeling led into different musical areas and Heavy makes that very plain -- it opens with a swingy Gothic ode to a black widow spider in the windowsill, "Widow," and continues with "Love is Red," in which Houck sings "You almost killed me" before ululating the next line, "Your love almost killed me."

"Afternoon" is a ragtimey duet between Houck and Oklahoma singer Fiawna Forte about being more of a morning person and not much caring for those waning sunlight hours. The verses stay light and twangy, with the grumblier chorus emphasized by heavier, much more rock-sounding instrumentation.

Heavy allows Houck to use her voice in several different ways than the Americana model of song favored by GCR, and she takes full advantage of it, creating an entirely different set of characters in the songs on Heavy. Although focusing on folk and country instrumentation like banjos, accordions and the like, the album never limits itself sonically to just those sounds -- "Hospital" ends with a "Brick in the Wall"-styled build of orchestral instrumentation that no picker and grinner ever envisioned.

There's always a danger in trying to describe an album or sound by referencing other artists, but the best word picture for Honey is probably "the duet album Leon Redbone and Maria McKee always wanted to make, except when they did Leon decided not to sing." Whether Honeylark maintains its diverse directions or hones in more on one or the other is yet to be seen, but it should be worth finding out.

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