Lori McKenna,
The Kitchen Tapes
(Gyrox, 2003)

In August 2004, my friend Tom McKenna called a local radio station and won two tickets to spend a day at the Newport Folk Festival. When he asked me to go along, I agreed. I'd never been to Newport, let alone witnessed one of its big music events. After glancing at the scheduled lineup, though, I was a bit disappointed. We would be missing the previous night's performance of Crosby, Stills & Nash. I'd seen David, Stephen and Graham dozens of times, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have loved to see and hear them again. I didn't recognize any of the other names on the bill. But hey, it was a free trip to Newport, and it involved music. Off we went.

Once we arrived and looked at the options, we chose first to walk into a tent that featured a songwriters circle. Four or five individual guitarists were seated on a platform, and they took turns singing and playing their songs. We picked that tent because one of the performers listed was Lori McKenna. McKenna isn't exactly an unusual surname, but seeing as my friend Tom shared it with her, we went with the coincidence. I am certainly glad we did.

Lori was the third performer, as I remember now, years later. First up was the duo of Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez. (Taylor is best known as the composer of the song "Wild Thing.") They did a nice (but in retrospect, unmemorable) job. When Lori's turn came, she spoke rather quietly. She looked like an unassuming young woman, so it was startling to learn she was the mother of five. She was from Stoughton, Mass., so I thought perhaps she had been invited to the festival because she was a semi-local New Englander. But as soon as she began to sing and to play her guitar -- wow! She blew everyone else off the stage.

To say that her voice is a powerful instrument is an understatement. Her picking technique too is strong in its simplicity. I found myself impatient for the other performers to hurry up and finish so Lori's turn would come around again. Based on the amount of audience applause, I wasn't the only one who felt that way. Obviously Lori was there because she was quite good, and not just because she lived a few hours away. I knew I had to buy one of her CDs to keep in touch with her music.

The Kitchen Tapes is one of four albums that Lori self-released during the first years of her career. She recorded these 13 tracks in her kitchen, using just a small recorder and microphone. So this is the ultimate "unplugged" session, complete with occasional door slams and Mom asking the kids to be quiet. And yet, she still manages to blow us away with her vocals, her strumming and a selection of haunting and amazing songs. They follow no typical chord progressions, no standard time signatures, and have no typical rhymes or themes. The words reflect mostly slices of life and describe everyday situations, with a few references to lost love thrown into the mix. Her style is kind of country, kind of new age. Certainly not what you would envision coming from a Bay State native.

Lori performed three songs that afternoon in Newport, and two of them appear on this CD. "Beautiful Man" is a tribute to her husband. "Falter" is the track I admire most. It tells of an old school classmate who has fallen -- rather predictably -- onto hard times, and Lori wonders if she could have intervened and prevented his situation. "Why don't we open up / Knowing that we all falter / And when will we learn / To reach out for each other." It's a story that we can all relate to, as we think of someone from our own pasts and ponder the human condition and its interconnectedness. It's the song I heard her do in person and knew immediately I had to own. The other songs included here are "How to be Righteous," "Bible Song," "Jealousy," "Unfinished Song #57," "Dance with the Ladies," "The Other Boys," "Fake Plastic Trees," "You Better," "Feeding the Angels," "Afternoons" and "For You."

Fragments of these phrases and melodies will stick in your head for a while. Thankfully, most of the lyrics (except, for some reason, those for "Fake Plastic Trees") are in the liner booklet. For, while Lori is a great singer-songwriter, her vocal tones sometimes disguise the words she's singing, at least during this recording session. You might have to look at the pages to figure out what the song is really about. Otherwise, you could find yourself singing along with what you thought is a happy tune, only to look at the words and realize it isn't.

In the time since Lori McKenna recorded these songs in her kitchen and appeared at Newport in 2004, her star has risen considerably. In 2007, she toured with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and some of her songs were recorded by Hill. In early 2008, she toured with Trisha Yearwood. By listening to The Kitchen Tapes you have a chance to hear Lori McKenna's early work without interference from studio engineer adjustment. You get to hear a singer-songwriter star in the making.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Corinne H. Smith

26 April 2008

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