Amy McCarley,
Jet Engines
(independent, 2014)

The cover photo of Amy McCarley's Jet Engines depicts a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the young Loretta Lynn. This probably won't be the average consumer's first thought, but it will be there once the listening commences. If not a Lynn clone by any stretch, McCarley feels at times like some broad, updated approximation of this still influential one-time country star. And, too, there's that heavy Southern accent, in McCarley's case courtesy of her Alabama upbringing.

This is her second album -- I haven't heard her first and indeed hadn't heard of her till now -- but Jet Engines quickly caught my undivided attention as it started to play. Likely, it will do the same to you. The opening cut, "Everybody Wants To," its skeletal production designed to afford McCarley's voice as much space as possible, is sung with a distinctive power and an affecting sincerity. A plain-spoken declaration of the common human desire to find one's place in the world, it amounts to a kind of secular hymn. It's also one of the finest new songs I've heard this year.

Nine cuts follow, all originals, in a style that borrows in varying quantities from country, folk and rockabilly. Perhaps a little disappointingly, the remaining numbers tend usually to be more personal and relationship-centered, as if after "Everybody" McCarley had exhausted Big Statements. There are no narrative songs, either; instead, we get one-sided conversations with lovers, current or former, or late-night ruminations on same. Though this reviewer wished for more expansively imaginative contents, the songs are solidly constructed, the production consistently well tuned, the vocals an aural delight.

In some ways McCarley seems off in a country music of her own invention, bowing generally to tradition but from a modern perspective that implicitly assumes a woman's autonomy in love, sex and career. Two songs nod to classic pieces composed decades ago. "Radio On" spins out of Albert Brumley's "Turn Your Radio On," "Woods on Fire" from a thematic re-imagining of Hank Williams's "Settin' the Woods on Fire" (though McCarley slips in a sly allusion to Jim Morrison at the end). Other especially strong numbers include the irresistible "Head Out of Town" and the interestingly conceived drinkin'-and-thinkin' "Smart Man."

Another way to define McCarley, perhaps, is as the product of an unlikely union of Loretta Lynn and John Prine, but that's not quite it, either. Lynn's performances are emotionally direct, while McCarley's feel a little guarded even in the ostensibly confessional. She also lacks Prine's quirky storytelling gift and his off-the-wall humor. Everything on Jet Engines isn't somber, but actual jokes are hard to find.

As it is, this is a pretty good album, and in its most inspired moments more than that. If you're looking for an appealingly fresh sound fashioned out of found materials, you'll want to hear this. While Jet Engines doesn't take McCarley all the way to her destination -- presumably, recognition as a fully formed and singularly talented singer-songwriter -- it affords at least a sense of what she will be like by the time she lands.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 July 2014

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