Fresh on the heels of her melancholy pop exploration, We Will Become Like Birds (Nettwerk, 2005), Erin McKeown comes roaring back with Sing You Sinners - 13 songs of mischief and verve collected from the forgotten corners of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. Written by the likes of Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Fats Waller, learned from Fred Astaire, Gene Krupa, Nat King Cole, and Blossom Dearie, Sing You Sinners is McKeown's singular and sly take on the not-so-standard entries in the Great American Songbook.
In a time when the thought of another album along the lines of 'X sings the Standards' or 'Y sings Cole Porter' can fill a music fans heart with emotions ranging from foreboding to outright terror, the new album from Erin McKeown is a breath of fresh air.
"I believe a song is simply a set of instructions - some words and some chords that need to happen- eventually," McKeown says, "If you respect the set of instructions, you can have a healthy disrespect for everything else." With that sense of irreverence and her usual eccentricities intact, McKeown set out to rough up a set of songs she has been collecting for the last 10 years.
Sinners kicks off with the cinematic "Get Happy," whose sprightly guitar and horns are a nod to the movie-musical spirit of Judy Garland. You are probably familiar with the classic "Paper Moon," but played as an exuberant dub-calypso? How about the cheeky "Just One of Those Things" as a slow, sinister electric organ vamp? "Thanks for the Boogie Ride," sung originally in 1941 by the inimitable Anita O'Day, is transformed from a big-band classic to a rockabilly rave-up, while the twin organ and guitar lines of the title track recall Rosemary Clooney and the surreal lounge pop of the mid-50's. In the midst of all this high octane stomp, come the sweet Reinhardt swing of "Coucou" and the gorgeous swish of "They Say It's Spring." Tying it all together is McKeown's clear and unadorned voice - natural and confident.
Sing You Sinners is McKeown's fourth studio album in six years and her seventh release since she began her career in 1997 at the age of 20. Eight years later, she has built a truly unique reputation for being a complete original. Sinners also marks McKeown's debut as a sole producer. "I am so proud of all the songs I have written, and I've always felt that the most important thing I could add to the world was new songs. I still feel that way, but with Sinners I wanted to pay more attention to my taste as a music fan. Who are the singers I admire? What are the songs that grab me? In that sense, I have been 'producing' this record forever," says McKeown. That may be true, but some more immediate work was necessary to get the project rolling.
McKeown began by assembling a band of talented friends. She explains: "One of the things I enjoyed so much about my previous record, Birds, was the sense of community I felt recording live with a band, as opposed to playing all the instruments myself. I wanted to take that even further, so I recruited players I had spent lots of time with on the road." Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter), a longtime collaborator with McKeown, brought his left-field jazz chops to the piano, organ, and wurlitzer. Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco), another longtime friend, played the bass like a highwire acrobat - the perfect note at the perfect time with a delicious sense of danger. Newest to the family was drummer Allison Miller (Natalie Merchant) a flawless technical player sensitive to the humor and melody of the songs. Rounding out the ensemble was McKeown playing her usual array of banjos and guitars.
The album harks back to the classic recording decades, the 'Golden Age' of the 30's, 40's and 50's. When a studio recording was a live take with consummate musicians and arrangements. With a sparse but sympathetic production 'Sing You Sinners' is about the singer. And the songs.
In the spirit of the recordings that inspired her, McKeown made the record live, in four days, in her hometown of Northampton MA. Together the four musicians tossed around ideas, took chances, and made each other laugh - take after take. The results surprised even the producer. "This is a record I have been wanting to make forever, but even having thought about it so much, it completely surpassed my expectations. It's funnier; it's faster; it's way more me than anything I have done previously."
Making records is rarely easy or simple, but with Sing You Sinners, the ingredients were improbable and impeccable. Songs the singer loves. A band on the edge of falling apart. The result is a swaggering, staggering good time, full of laughter, mistakes, and moments of unexpected beauty