Mark McKay,
Live from the Memory Hotel
(Dren, 2003)

The composition of Mark McKay's Live From The Memory Hotel is interesting with its implied symmetry. Instead of a live performance consisting of a bunch of popular songs, there seems to be intention in the song order. Two songs -- "Nashville" and "Constantine Garden" -- are repeated to frame the live performance. "Constantine Garden" is a song about memories and nostalgia, while "Nashville" is a catchy quasi-singalong narrative. The repeat combination provides an enjoyable and fulfilling feeling to the album.

There is another song, "Long Lost Louise," that is utilized as both a centerpiece for the live performance and as a finale to the album. The first/live performance of "Long Lost Louise" is a very melancholy introspective song that is as equally intriguing as it is satisfying. The second/studio version doesn't act as a send-'em-out-in-the-streets finale, moreso as a reflective resolution. It has a more obvious studio sound, but the qualities don't detract from the core of the song. If you want more energy, check out the live version. If you prefer more accompaniment and less edge, there's the studio version.

One other song worth mentioning is "Rain." This excellent track has all the intense and focused energy of a live acoustic performance. While I'm confident a studio version would be pretty good, hearing it in a live format makes it thoroughly enjoyable.

Possibly the most interesting element of this album is McKay's vocal style -- it's rather odd yet captivating. He sings in a very throaty baritone style that borders on being a subdued scream. The "throaty" levels fluctuate throughout the live album (as would be expected). To hear his voice at its most "almost-gritty" state, as well as the most energetic live performance, check out "Moonshiner."

An inherent feature of this album is the absolutely wonderful complementary vocal work by Kris Delmhorst. Instead of lead and background vocals, think of it as senior vocals (McKay) and junior vocals (Delmhorst). She delicately balances McKay's voice, fitting in perfectly where needed. Take note of Delmhorst towards the end of the live version of "Long Lost Louise"; her vocals are the keystone of that song's strength.

In my opinion, a great album balances two aspects: intention and enjoyment. By "intention," I refer to the artist's intent: depth of subject matter, exploration of sound, complexities, etc. This separates a good performer from a musical artist. The other aspect, "enjoyment," should be obvious; can you pop the CD in and enjoy listening to it? Well, this album provides equilibrium.

In Live from the Memory Hotel, McKay proves he's an entertaining musical artist. There's as much intention in this album as you want to explore. There's also more than enough enjoyment for the repeat play this album will undoubtedly receive.

- Rambles
written by C. Nathan Coyle
published 17 October 2004

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