Lori McKenna,
Paper Wings & Halo
(Humming Lake Studios, 1997)

Despite the great number and various styles of women playing guitars out there, I never tire of finding new voices, as long as they are in fact good and tell their stories with confidence. I am an unabashed Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos fan, though I can get very venomous when I come across yet another female singer who seems to merely channel one of those two and adds nothing new or personal to the theme. So I approached Lori McKenna's Paper Wings & Halo with a bit of trepidation.

I try to listen to each new singer with an open mind (I hope) and thankfully, more often than not, I am surprised by another talent who people may not have heard of. Despite that, when I first listened to this CD, I was immediately taken over by an unfortunate association with the Alanis in McKenna's harsher twang. Not that I depise Alanis Morrisette -- she can be fun and impressively clever sometimes -- but too many trademarks invoked tend to turn off my listening ear. Thankfully, the association was fleeting, and McKenna immediately asserted herself as a rich and powerful singer-songwriter, clever and sincere as I feel the best of such singers are.

I was immediately drawn to the lyrics (as I am a writer, this should be no surprise). The clear and strongly arranged guitar and harmonies are impressive, but the lyrics are the bones of McKenna's songs. I was struck over and over again by the observation and painful honesty that imbue each description -- she has no problem drawing herself or others in a clear and unsentimental light.

"As I Am" is a great start for the album, the rhythm of forceful chords and McKenna's own deep, strong voice showing her talent immediately. From the cover of the album, covered with photos of the musicians' children with endearing paper wings and haloes, I would never have expected the barely contained anger and force of personality which is immediately obvious in McKenna's voice.

"What's One More Time" is full again of clear guitar and elegant progressions of melody. The lyrics address the pain of remembering relationships which have died and the struggle to keep memories close even as they can be destructive. McKenna painfully evokes the pull backwards alongside the resignation that comes when that battle has finished without one side's quite ready to admit defeat and leave the battlefield.

"Paper Wings & Halo" is a more upbeat and immediately catchy tune. The lyrics tell a story of old age in modern times and the restlessness of rest homes. I think it would touch chords for anyone who's watched the decline of a grandparent and mourned the personality trapped in the frail body. The strangeness of waiting for death and the certainty of heaven as something we all hope for is well defined and told without the schlock that could so easily damage such a song.

"Ruby's Shoes" quickly became one of my favorites. The beat is infectious, and the story, though dark, is wittily told. The lyrics tell a story of the end of segregation in schools and the frustration at blind hatred. There's a careful reference to the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, which is quite lovely and well done: "Now, Ruby knew about Dorothy / and the ruby shoes she wore / she wondered about Oz sometimes / well, no other child ever walked in her shoes before...."

"Would You Love Me Then" provoked another association for me, with Ani DiFranco's fiercely angry "Superhero," but the association was again a good one. Flying is mentioned once again in a continuing theme, though the song elegantly outlines the journey toward accepting oneself for what one is but still admitting the pain of not being what's wanted. The anger and confusion of why someone can't care the way you want them to is deftly drawn.

"Hardly Speaking a Word" is another favorite of mine from the album, though the anger is again more palpable than the humor. This song addresses the struggle to make a connection and to say what you should despite the fear and reserve that can hold you back. It also touches on how to understand someone so different from yourself by ignoring the difference and just accepting, and how instinctive reactions can be so wrong: "I'm yelling when I should be whispering / and I'm pushing when I should be carrying / and I don't understand anything I've heard / and I should be yelling I love you...."

"It's Easy When You Smile" is a tender love song rather unique for it's lack of angst. The tune is still tinged with the sadness which seems to permeate the album, but there's a strong sense of hope that feels candid and optimistic. "Paying the Price" is a more pained, lyrical song along the same theme. It illuminates the affection and influences that never leave you not matter how much you should let them go.

"Swallows Me Whole" is an impressively observed self portrait, or at least it seems like one. This ballad attempts to explain the kind of independence you embrace with full awareness of the dangers of letting yourself go. The song serves as a kind of warning to all those who would control you. "I can see high above it / The world is a boundary for you / and I know that you'd like to see through it / the way I do ... And I'll be just fine / out of my mind / I like it this way / I know when to pray / I don't need any -- until I need more / And I'm in control / till it swallows me whole...."

"Don't Tell Her" returns to the jilted lover canon, this time creating a vignette on trying to let go of old lovers and best friends and the combinations thereof. McKenna here highlights the jealousy and secrets that remain concerning certain people which are a part of you through past closeness but are necessarily moving on without you. It could almost be called the song of the third wheel, exploring the cycles of love which won't die but shouldn't be fanned either.

"Holy Water" brings an unpretentious force to a simplistic song. Perhaps the most rockin' selection on the album, and driven more by its beat than its lyrics, "Holy Water" creates a image of skepticism and the wily eyes of a trickster selling dreams in order to escape sin herself. The combination of her strong voice and sense of rhythm and images flawlessly bring the harsher side of imagination to life.

"Never Be Back" is the kind of song which has such truth in the lyrics that it's a pleasure and a pain to listen to. A trademark verse: "You and I through so many fights / And it's not about the one that we had the other night / it's the ones we've never had / when you close your eyes to me and pretend you're not mad...."

"Borrow Me" lends a beauty and conviction of emotion to the end of the album, ending on a bit of trust and hope rather than the more bitter emotions that mark the rest of the album. Instead, "Borrow Me" describes the exchange of strength and pull between friends you want to help but aren't sure how to approach.

This album is a certain choice for anyone who appreciates unassumingly articulate lyrics and great compositions -- which I hope would be most everyone -- though it will especially draw the "strong women" music crowd. Of the many new female singers I've heard, from the bubblelicious Christina Aguleira to the fierce Shania Twain, I'd personally prefer to rock back and spend the afternoon with Lori McKenna.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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