Volume 4, Issue 4 University of Houston
McNally's strong voice almost makes up for inconsistent debut album
By Ellen Simonson
Shannon McNally's debut album Jukebox Sparrows is neither glorious nor unremarkable, though it has elements of both. McNally's voice deserves the glowing praise it's garnered, but for too many of the songs on the album it's the only real strong point.
Songs like "Down and Dirty" and "Bury My Heart at the Jersey Shore" are vaguely catchy. While they both have elements of country and folk, they're much more reminiscent of mainstream pop. Both have pretty, quiet verses that build to sugary choruses and fade again -- they're inoffensive, but they're not very interesting.
"Colorado" begins with some very impressive vocals by McNally; her voice is smooth and sweet over a simple, quiet melody, alternating between being powerful and gentle. "Never knew how I felt till I felt that gun in my hands," she murmurs at one point. "Never knew the sound of my voice till I heard it with a gun in my hands." The song is the longest on the album, and the best.
"I'll Always Be Around" has an easy folk-rock sound and often-cheesy love-song lyrics ("Never need to miss you 'cause you're always on my mind"). The chorus provides another highlight for the power of McNally's voice, but the song is musically unexceptional -- it makes you want to tap your feet, but you forget the melody the minute it ends, and hearing McNally intone "I'll always be arou-ound" continually for what feels like five minutes ends up sounding annoying rather than passionate.
"Now that I Know" is a simple love song, complete with all the usual phrases. The chorus, again, loses impact with repetition: "Now that I know what I know I know I'll always love you ... Now that I got what I got I know I had it all along." The song has its lyrical compensations here and there, however -- lines like "I'll be your ground if you'll be my muse I can tie on to" are well-done, and hearing McNally intone knowingly, "Man, baby, with you I've come a long way" makes up for a lot.
"It Ain't Easy Being Green" is unabashedly poppy; McNally's voice is charming and sweet while delivering lyrics about "a lonely girl on a bus in the middle of the night" who calls her own cell phone "to hear a friendly voice." "Patty-cake, patty-cake, barkeep man/ Pour me a beer as fast as you can," she goes on to say, in another lyrical highlight.
McNally has been compared to Lucinda Williams, but her voice, while strong, lacks the raspy lived-in quality that makes much of Williams' work so immediately compelling. But the comparison springs to mind quickly with songs like "Bitter Blue," which features a casual-yet-passionate delivery very reminiscent of Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
The publicity accompanying McNally's album postulates that her degree in anthropology helps her discover and narrate people's stories. This general idea is apparent in "It Could've Been Me," which begins with a story about the narrator's friend, who stops her car ("I'm sure she had her reasons") only to discover "some creep" interprets this as "chick open season." The narrator can't forget "it could have been me/ Distracts me like a baseball bat across my knees."
A second, related story about the narrator herself features some standard philosophizing -- "How many times has the devil walked among us wearing the face of the savior?" -- but the topic and delivery validate the cliche.
"Start All Over" is a well-written, plaintive song about transience, airplanes, exhaustion, moonlight and lost opportunity. The song is more "country" than the others on the album, and it's one of the strongest due to the sincere quality of McNally's vocals.
Overall, Shannon McNally is a solid songwriter and talented vocalist.
She may not be the reinvention of musical genius Capitol Records wants
you to think she is, but hey, Jukebox Sparrows is her first album.
With time and experience, she may indeed grow into another Lucinda.
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