listening booth: david gray, kate earl, lori mckenna

Written by Music


David Gray – Life in Slow Motion (2005)

There was a time when I thought David Gray’s music was insufferably boring. Either I was wrong, or I’ve become insufferably boring myself, because I’ve developed an honest appreciation — God help me, sometimes a genuine fondness — for the melancholy musings of the Welsh troubadour, in a this-is-nice-over-Sunday-breakfast sort of way. It was on an early-morning airport drive in March that I realized I’d truly crossed over: The sun was coming up over Boston Harbor, “Babylon” came on the radio, and I caught myself thinking “Wow, this song is really beautiful” before I realized what we were listening to.

Anyway, if you like David Gray, you know his albums are more or less interchangeable; the songs might be different, but the form is essentially the same. He’s tried to switch things up a bit on Life in Slow Motion, availing himself of a real big-budget recording studio rather than the bedroom setups he’s used in the past. A lot of the noise from the Gray camp regarding this album is that it’s “bigger,” but eh, I don’t know how accurate that is. The production is still pretty skeletal, although “Now and Always” (download) is positively Sgt. Peppers-ish compared to his earlier work (and maybe the best song on the album besides).

Gray has described this album’s music as “eloquent,” which I’ll go along with, but he’s also quite proud of his lyrics here, which is mystifying; I’m no poet, but this stuff ranges from the merely serviceable to the semi-embarrassing. He’s particularly happy with “From Here You Can Almost See the Sea” (download), which contains the following rhyming-dictionary groaners:

Just a parasite in a line
I’m smoking, killing the time
How long’s a piece of twine

and

Little puppy dog in a box
Somebody’s picking the locks
Must want the darn from the socks

I’m forever being criticized by friends and acquaintances for caring about the lyrics to pop songs; if you’re like me, you’ve heard “Nobody cares about the words” so many times you almost believe it. If this is what passes for prideworthy these days, perhaps those people have a point. I confess to absolute ignorance with regards to the words to Gray’s other songs, and I’m guessing that might be a good thing. It’ll still sound good over bagels, coffee, and the morning paper.


Kate Earl – Fate is the Hunter (2005)

First things first. She’s a female singer/songwriter from Alaska, so you can’t read a single Kate Earl review without suffering through at least one mention of that state’s most famous snaggletoothed musical export, but I’m not going to do it here. They don’t look or sound alike, for one thing — Earl is smokin’ hot and one of the most enjoyable debut artists I’ve heard in years — and for another, I prefer not to think of that other artist at all if I can help it. So there.

Fate is the Hunter was recommended by Dawayne Bailey, guitarist extraordinaire and certified FOJ (that’s “friend of jefitoblog” to you, mister), and I owe him one. The more I listen to this record, the more I like it.

The other press I’ve read on Earl contains a lot of comparisons — Joni Mitchell, Cat Power, blah blah blah — that miss the point without being entirely inaccurate. Her jazz-tinged brand of folksy pop will certainly go down smooth with the Lilith Fair crowd, but in most respects, she’s a pretty singular artist. She’s got an admirable set of pipes, but her voice has enough of a vulnerable edge to keep the songs grounded in honest emotion. A song like “Free” (download) could be deadly in the wrong hands, but she nails it — as candlelit ballads go, it’s flawless.

It helps that Earl and producer Tony Berg never lost sight of her true strength, which is her songs. This is a deeply autobiographical set, and Berg brought in some big guns — Mitchell Froom, Michael Penn, Wendy Melvoin, Jon Brion, Pete Thomas — whose presence helps the material live up to its fullest potential. Even when the production gets semi-involved, like on “Officer” (download), everything still has room to breathe. Though Hunter does drag a bit in the middle, there isn’t a bum song in the bunch, and that’s something most artists can’t ever say, let alone about their debut. Color me impressed. I want more.


Lori McKenna – Bittertown (2004)

This one’s another recommendation — from my pal Fred Wilhelm, who wrote with her recently. Like Fred, Lori McKenna is one of the writers featured on Faith Hill’s new album; unlike Fred, Lori wrote multiple songs (among them the title track). What this means is that you’ll probably be hearing more about McKenna soon — in fact, most of the Faith Hill reviews I’ve read mention her by name.

Lori McKenna does not sound like Faith Hill.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing — the world has more than enough perfectly coiffed torch singers — and so is Bittertown, her third and most recent album. She’s a Signature Sounds artist, which means that discerning fans of New England folk have known who she is for quite awhile now; think Mark Erelli, Richard Shindell, and Amy Rigby. If those names don’t mean anything to you, think Patty Griffin. And if you don’t know who Patty Griffin is, then just download these goddamn songs already and hear her finely wrought tales of small triumphs and quiet regrets for yourself: “Mr. Sunshine” (download) and “Stealing Kisses” (download).

Good stuff, no?