Monday, March 23, 2009

She's Got Rhythm

Erin McKeown is a spitfire. Born in Boston, the 31 year-old dimunitive singer does not wear the appellation "folksinger" comfortably because, in reality, like many of my favorite singers, she hops around different genres. Whether she's rocking or swinging, her singing remains the same—bright and clear, and immediately appealing your ear.

2006's Sing You Sinners is a terrific place to start, especially if you're a jazz enthusiast approaching her. This collection of standards is unconventional in terms of choice of material. At first it begins predictably with "Get Happy" followed swiftly with a tom-tom beating version of "Paper Moon". Fresh arrangements that get the project off to a blazing start. But then, an odd choice: Django Reinhardt's "Cou Cou"--again, light and lilting, but firmly establishing the singer's signature idiosyncrasy. Other songs in this vein that reveal this graduate of Brown University has a dynamite music collection--there's Nat King Cole's "I Was a Little Too Lonely (You Were a Little Too Late)"—don't feel dumb if you don't know it, I had to look it up and learned that the sheet music for it is out-of-print—and Anita O'Day's "Thanks for the Boogie Ride." I was especially pleased to find a novelty number whose wordplay has always delighted me, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's "Rhode Island Is Famous for You."

McKeown's voice is especially engaging on the two sad and wistful numbers in the set—"They Say It's Spring" and "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" (a lovely number I know by Sinatra. Superb choice!). They're a welcome relief from her aggressive vocal attack on most of the album.

She takes a chance by laying a mysterious and haunted interpretation Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things". It is successful in terms of being true to the spirit of the lyric but, after hearing it performed brightly for so long, I can't say I'm giving up the author's trademark insouciance. Her one clear misstep is Fats Waller's "If You a Viper"—sorry, Erin, but that brand of hip-slapping jazz wasn't designed for such a cheerful songstress as you.

Originally Erin McKeown went to Brown to be a biologist. She started playing the guitar in college and got lost in music. She already has four studio albums under her belt. I've seen her in concert, and she's electrifying. Long may she run!

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