CD Review: "Chances"

December 02, 2008

by Fred Mills, Blurt

One might describe this singer-songwriter as specializing in "banjo thumping urban folk"; that is, after all, the tagline Kelleigh McKenzie herself provides at her MySpace page. And if you just did a cursory skim of her debut (or glanced at the sleeve photo, which depicts her clutching a banjo) you might come away thinking exactly that. The first two cuts, for example, are tuneful twang stuff - "O Mother" prominently features McKenzie's banjo, along with her sweet warble, for most of the track, with percussion and bass (the "thump") kicking in towards the end; "Gin," that follows, again spotlights McKenzie's picking, here set to an insistent martial beat- but unless you listen close, you'll miss a lot of subtleties and nuance, the kind telegraphed in the latter's lyrics:

Give me your secrets
Give me your chains...
You're fine, I like you better
When you're crawling on the ground

This is not a woman inclined to compromise in the service of expectations. Indeed, for a quote-unquote "Americana" release, Chances thwarts easy pigeonholing at every turn. Possessing a clear, keening voice that brings to mind, variously, Shawn Colvin, Jolie Holland, Tori Amos and a less pixieish Dolly Parton, and armed with instruments culled from both the traditional (acoustic guitar, dobro, producer/guitarist Jeff Michne's lap steel) and the freak-folk (harmonium, mando guitar, the droning/Sitar-like tanpura) communities, McKenzie weaves pure aural magic across the course of these 10 songs and two interludes. Each number is riveting in its own right, but among the album's obvious highlights: "War For Sale," a PJ Harvey-esque, loops-strewn slice of bluesy psychedelia; "In Between," slinkily seductive in its folky lope, and boasting a particularly sassy vocal turn from McKenzie; and a lovely version of the Beatles' oft-covered Eleanor Rigby" that's perfectly true to the original thanks to McKenzie having resisted the urge to embellish unnecessarily.

There's also "2017," utterly spine chilling in its droning, atmospheric minimalism, whose desolate, allegorical pro-choice lyrics -sung by McKenzie in a tone that's one-part gasp, one-part shudder and several parts cautionary - bear repeating in full here:

I came of age in 2017
My baby forced to bear
I've heard the stories of a time when we could choose
We didn't realize how much we had to lose
We lose

In fact, it's chilling just reading those words.

McKenzie apparently began work on this album a decade or so after moving from Oregon to New York City, only to be hit by crippling pain brought on by a mysterious, undiagnosed ailment. A long recovery period, which involved getting out of the city and off to the rurality of Rosendale (in the Hudson Valley), ensued. The time and relative deliberation, then, that went into the making of Chances proved serendipitous. It's a stunning album by any measure - but as a debut, it's one of those lightning-in-a-bottle affairs that we music fans live for.

updated: 12 years ago