Andrew McKnight,
Beyond Borders
(Falling Mountain, 2005)

Andrew McKnight's Beyond Borders begins as a pleasant enough album. There's a consistent philosophical theme throughout the first half. The title song invites exploration beyond the normal with words and an exotic rhythm. "My Good Name" growls through a bluesy search for redemption, while "Wishing" flies through the air on flute and drum. The stoic despair of "Hard Times in the Heartland" is balanced by the somewhat heavy-handed message that "Good Things Matter." It's all somewhat lightweight, but McKnight's stylistic experimentation provides enough variety to keep it all entertaining.

But at the midpoint, Beyond Borders begins to change. "Atlantis" is the first hint, a musical portrait of a sunken town whose old residents still live, but whose existence is already less well known than the mythical island city. More precise and more immediate is "Do You Hear Them," an evocative chant that calls and mourns the lost buffalo herds and all the wildness that lived with them. Beginning with his sing-song ode to America's wild places, McKnight's voice deepens and expands. He belts out the defiant gospel of "Rust on My Halo" with power unhinted at in the milder first half of the album. "Flowers in My Yard" boils all the heartache and defiance of "Hard Times in the Heartland" into a single portrait of an old woman creating small beauty in the face of destitution, and the personal touch adds the force missing from the earlier song. "Alchemy" is another rumination on the abstract questions of life, but with new focus and an inviting fiddle that adds needed reality to the flight of fancy.

The musical quality of the album also changes after "Do You Hear Them." The first half of the album is an interesting mix of musical styles, with bluegrass, folk, African and new age influences marking individual songs. The second half is consistently closer to the bluegrass and Appalachian influences in McKnight's work. The instrumental "June Apple" gives audible evidence of the joy McKnight finds in the American folk tradition. His second half embrace of that influence gives the later melodies a natural strength missing from the earlier songs.

Andrew McKnight finds some intriguing material when he ventures Beyond Borders. But his folk sound is a reminder of the strength and elegance found at home. Interesting as it will be to hear his future attempts to blend the two, the contrast makes Beyond Borders a more compelling album.

by Sarah Meador
26 November 2005

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