Erin McKeown,
(Signature Sounds, 2000)

Take some early Michelle Shocked and combine with parts of Dar Williams, the Nields, Lucinda Williams, Rickie Lee Jones and even Christine Lavin. Does that blend equal Erin McKeown? Well, no, not really. While here and there she may sound reminiscent of those artists, McKeown is remarkably hard to pigeonhole; she draws her sounds from numerous influences and plays with genres ranging from jazz to swing to singer-songwriter.

"Queen of Quiet" opens the CD with the multi-instrumentalist McKeown (accompanied by producer Dave Chalfont of The Nields, perhaps inviting the comparisons to that group) gently rasping as she sings the first verse and follows it with Christine Lavin-sounding "ooos." Her voice becomes fuller as she reaches the chorus, sings her own backing vocals, and matches her speeding guitar and its riffs. "Blackbirds" turns the children's rhyme on its head as she brings in a swing rhythm and country-style backbeat to give the song a '40s vibe with a modern take. Old-fashioned blues take full possession of "Didn't They," with McKeown's upright piano assuming a leading role, and "Little Cowboy," on which Chalfont's dobro and backing vocalist Ben Demerath's yodels add to the old-timey feel; swing has a tight grasp of "La Petite Mort."

The Nields comparison is the strongest on "How to Open My Heart in 4 Easy Steps." Katryna Nields herself (along with Beth Amsel) joins in on backing vocals (or "ooohs, hums, and wails," as McKeown terms them). The starkness of the verses contrasts greatly with the choruses, and the three women's voices blend nicely in their "wails" to show the narrator's desperate feelings.

A gentle acoustic guitar creates a perhaps too long introduction for "Dirt Gardener," and while the whispered first verse written by Dorothy Juanita Smith Price is too subtle to appreciate, McKeown's poetic second verse is powerful and gives an indication as to where she can go with her songwriting. To continue the poetic feel, the album closes with "Love in 2 Parts" and its beat-style lyrics. It opens as a jazzy funk number and ends as a thoughtful, yet sad, singer-songwriter piece.

McKeown's most likely not going to crack the Top 40 charts any time soon (unless it's the Americana chart), but Distillation clearly demonstrates strong talent that may take her in numerous musical directions. Given time, future new artists may be compared to her.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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