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This review was first published on CLUAS in 2004
Other albums reviewed in 2004

Erin McKeown

A (negative!) review of her album 'Grand'

What is it about the Irish that we insist on taking to our bosoms musicians who, in any other country, would be considered B grade, jobbing songsters? We shower our affections on dreary, imitative, flattened out tunesmiths such as Josh Ritter and Ryan Adams whilst wilfully ignoring brilliant talents such as John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell and Paul Westerburg with their raw powerful songs and their tough, melodic, uncompromising visions of the world. We turn away until the weight of their talent becomes too great for us to ignore any longer. Into this category of mediocrity I now place faux folkie Erin McKeown, a singer who not only has nothing to say but can't even decide which genre to not say it in. Is she folky, is she jazzy, is she bluesy? Don't ask her, she can't decide, preferring to flit from one musical style to another on her third album 'Grand' as if trying on flowery summer dresses, rather than to stay put and try and to write songs that say something, anything.

Erin MckeownI blame the proliferation of coffee shops in Ireland for this kind of music. There are only so many times you can play the likes of St Germain or Josh Ritter before even the latte-sipping, bedsit set ask you to change the record. Soft, plaintive, misty music is what is what is needed. Stuff you can put on in the background as you gossip about who did what to who and where, compare purchases made in the sales or bitch about delays to the DART service. Nice, safe, gentle background music which is the aural equivalent of having a blend of warm milk and golden syrup poured into your ears. No place here for Crowell's ballads of rent boys dying of AIDS or Williams' depictions of violent relationships or Westerburg's polemics on suicide. Oh no, none of that. Too difficult. Demands too much attention, emotion and passion. You've got to actually listen to it for Christ's sake. Who has time for that anymore?

I loathed this record. It represents everything that is wrong with modern music. Folk without tradition, blues without pain, jazz without intellectual exploration. McKeown is the kind of musician so accurately lampooned in Christopher's Guest's 'A Mighty Wind' and her songs are reminiscent of the kind of stuff that you can hear any Tuesday night at the Open Mics in Slattery's of Rathmines. Pretty girls in oversized jumpers, gripping Takamines, strumming a series of unconnected jazzy chords and making out like they are the next Joni Mitchell. McKeown is the product of a mindset that has effectively removed artists with something to say, some genuine human experience to impart, from our airwaves. She has been championed by Breakfast Radio which dictates that only emotion free, breezy pop is allowable. She is there to bring a smile to your face as you sit in traffic and contemplate the day ahead. Her cutesy lyrics and supermarket jingle melodies exist solely to make you tap your finger on the steering wheel in rhythm to the soft snare drum beat.

This is fake pop pap dressed up as something else. The singer's own website proclaims that she stands in opposition to the likes of Britney and Christina. It goes on to compare her to veteran talents such as Elvis Costello and Randy Newman and claims that her aim is to 'threaten the goalposts'. You know something? Say what you like about the Boy & Girl Bands, they don't lie to their fans. They are really just in it to put on a decent show, hang out with the Taoiseach's daughters and sell 'millions of records'. They don't pretend that they can inspire the religious fervour of Bob Dylan, they don't think that the lyrics of their songs actually mean something, they couldn't give a damn about street cred. McKeown and singers of her ilk are not so honest. They pretend to be 'indie', 'alternative', 'real' but they are playing the same game as the Pop puppets, they are in the muzak business. Woody Guthrie's inspiration was the working men and women that he met in the dustbowls and on the railroads, McKeown's is Judy Garland. That just about sums up the gulf.

There was a time when an acoustic guitar was seen as an instrument of the counterculture, a weapon of defiance. Guthrie even emblazoned his Martin Acoustic with the words 'This machine kills facists'. Today's singer/songwriters aren't so concerned about tradition or defiance, but they'll take the street cred anyway, thanks very much. Playing an acoustic guitar has become a pose, a way of saying 'I'm sensitive' and when you really want to labour the point. Why, play one of your dirges on a plonky old piano as McKeown does on 'Vera'. No need to actually learn anything about real folk music, where it came from or how it is sung. All too much like hard work. Anyway, real folk singers like to sing about death, pain, injustice, poverty and oppression. Their records don't get played on Breakfast Radio and, as was the case with Christy Moore's 'They Never Came Home', their songs can be deleted from their albums altogether if they cut too close to the bone and get sued. No fear of that happening to you as long as you sing about Judy Garland.

Am I being unfair? Am I judging her to harshly? Should I spare her comparisons to folk masters such as Woody Guthrie? Nah, I don't think so. If songsters like McKeown were only part of the tapestry of music available to us on radio, if they were just a niche interest, I wouldn't mind but they are all that there is right now and they are being held up as saviours.

McKeown is there alongside the troubadours who proclaim that they aren't into the money and the fame but who have websites that are just glorified online stores, containing 'news' section that proclaim that they are up for this Brit award or that Meteor award. Sensitive, soulful types who dream of places where their faces aren't on billboards and their records aren't on radio playlists. I dream of those places too, but not for the same reasons.

If McKeown stuck to her 'Hello Trees, Hello Birds, Hello Sky' songs, you could say I was taking it all too seriously but her claims for her songwriting and her attempts at anti-war music on such lamentable tracks as 'Civilians' where she sings fatuous lyrics such as, 'we will fire at will and from behind the lines / you who once were children / stand and stare where buildings became crimes' put her into a zone where I think she has to be judged to the standard of her claims. If this is the sort of stuff that is meant to be a threat to Britney then Britney has nothing to worry about.

If McKeown imagines that her lyrics can stand alongside of Elvis Costello then she should think again about what the narrator of 'Vera' says, 'what makes me live for this craft? / I'm going nowhere / My music's a bust / even our neighbours just laugh'.

There are genuinely good folk singers around such as the sublime Kate Rusby but they aren't signed by major record labels, feted on The Late Late Show or playlisted on FM radio. Instead, they exist on small labels, their records are stocked in speciality record shops and they approach their art with humility. Artists like Rusby draw from a very deep well of music which dates back hundreds of years, McKeown draws from a puddle that goes back to last week. McKeown's website says that 'Grand' is a necessity for any music lovers collection but you can't seriously love music and like this record.

'Grand' isn't great. It's garbage.

Jules Jackson

(bullet) For a positive counter-review of this same album click here.

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