A lot of people may not know it yet. Hell, a lot of people may never know it. But the couple hundred initiates who saw her perform at Schuba’s in Chicago last month knew it, and now I do too. Here’s the rub: you might have to see her live to fully get the picture.
You can listen to some clips here. They’re a tepid taste of a pale imitation of the real thing, though. Oh, the clips are wonderful; they do bring across how funky, quirky, smart, and eclectic McKeown’s music is. The full recordings are much, much better, however, since McKeown really knows how to put a song together. The pieces are diminished by extraction from the finely crafted wholes.
But what you really need to do, if you want an instant new pop hero, is catch McKeown live. If you live in New York, Boston, California, or a few other lucky places, you can do that in the near future. When I went to the Chicago show in September, having sampled her work on line, I wasn’t ready for the full force of McKeown’s charisma and talent. She turned out to be everything I was expecting: funky, quirky, smart, and eclectic. But she was something else over and above all that: the lady was fierce. Fiercely energetic, fiercely commanding, fiercely original. We were all in her pocket from the first number, and increasingly ecstatic throughout. Afterward she resumed human proportions, shuttling around the floor, chatting up lingerers and signing CDs. Her stuff has been in heavy–almost exclusive–rotation chez OGIC ever since.
McKeown is an omnivore whose music is all over the place, borrowing from jazz, bluegrass, blues, bubblegum, even Tin Pan Alley. Her lyrics are beguiling, evocative, sometimes mysterious, but never simply obscure. The insanely infectious “Born to Hum” muses wittily–and articulately–on inarticulateness: “Once in the spring of my twenty-fourth year / I had nothing to say / With a dangling promise, a terrible past, / I threw all the words away: / We were born to hum.” My favorite song in the show was one that will appear on the album she plans to release next year, a song about, to paraphrase her introduction, the romance of the adaptation of birds’ bodies to flight. It comes from the point of view of the birds, who have “air in my bones / where the marrow should be / but what I lack for guts and blood / i make up for in dreams.” It’s a playful, tender little marvel of a song.
Come to think of it, McKeown’s distinctive voice reminds me a bit of a particularly inspired bird’s. It’s lithe and intimate, sweetly knowing, and, as Terry pointed out when he listened to Grand with me during his recent visit, a little offhand. Her singing is decorated with inventive little flourishes that sound new and natural all at once. In “James!” she sings, “James, I told you I could be delu-xe,” and the unorthodox word division, the emphatic “xe,” make the word her own. Some of her songs remind me too of an old guilty pleasure from my twenties, the Aussie band Frent