EP Reviews: Lori McKenna – “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole” and Punch Brothers – “Ahoy!”

A commanding drum beat and cheeky 1980s style electric guitars greet the listener on “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole,” a Disney jam session meets “Down At The Twist and Shout” confection that anchors Lorrie McKenna’s EP of the same name, her six-song follow up to last year’s highly emotional Lorraine. It’s by far the most experimental thing she’s ever done, and the results are phenomenal. In this instance, taking creative risks pays off in spades.

McKenna then goes on to incorporate these creative instincts in the other tracks, showcasing a willingness to step beyond the familiarity of the lush acoustic sound she’s honed for the better part of her career. These differences, sometimes far subtler than others, make most of the EP an enjoyable listen.

An electric guitar penetrates the musical bed of “Whiskey and Chewing Gum,” a Troy Verges co-write, while the acoustic guitar underpinnings of “All It Takes” (co-written with her ‘sixth child’ Andrew Dorff) gives the track a fun, folksy vibe. Both songs are also standouts lyrically, with more than an abundance of memorable lines.

With three such strong forward thinking songs, the rest of the EP sounds a bit like a retreat back to the comfortable with McKenna sticking firm to her coffee-house roots. That isn’t necessarily a bad choice on her part, but I wanted more, especially since she’s surrounded herself with such ear-catching songs. The lush arrangements actually get in the way of two tracks – “Sometimes He Does” and “This and the Next Life,” which are both excellent songs in their own right, but feel predictable, with the latter a bit too slow for me to fully engage with.

I had similar thoughts with her Ashley Ray co-write “No Hard Feelings,” but the hook is strong, and their twist on the classic break-up ballad (“Once it’s gone – it’s gone/So no hard feelings”) is stunning – they leave the listener hanging – how is she able to break off their love so cleanly? Did she ever really love him at all? That simple mystery gives the track its allure.

Punch Brothers, one of the coolest – and criminally underrated – bands making music today take similar strides, serving up Ahoy! their companion EP to February’s masterwork Who’s Feeling Young Now?, one of my favorite albums of 2012. Consisting of five tracks, the project brilliantly displays Chris Thile’s continued growth since Nickel Creek, proving why he so richly deserves his MacArthur Grant.

Thile is seemingly unmatched as both a mandolin virtuoso and effective vocalist, but Ahoy! proves he and his band mates are also equally skilled as musical interpreters, turning the set’s three cover songs into completely reimagined takes on the originals. The vastly different tunes, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Down Along The Dixie Line” and Noise Rock group Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” all feel right at home in the progressive folk settings Punch Brothers frame them in.

Ritter’s ethereal “Another New World,” a slightly ambiguous epic, is the least transformed, staying true to the original. But the addition of Thile’s mandolin and the accents of fiddle give the track grounding, adding dimension to the somewhat tragic story. “Down Along the Dixie Line,” from Welch’s 2011 The Harrow and the Harvest is the complete antithesis, morphing from a southern gothic ballad into a fiery romp. Both are effective readings, although Punch Brothers barely give the lyric room to breath, nearly suffocating the story by speeding it up a little too fast.

The real delight is “Icarus Smicarus,” a noise rock disaster turned progressive bluegrass delight. One of Punch Brothers’ core appeals is their left of center oddity, which is fully explored in this song’s brilliant eccentricity. The lack of any significant narrative structure, let alone the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge pattern of country songwriting will alienate anyone in search of tangible meaning, but the connectedness of the group cannot be denied.

“Moonshiner,” the traditional folk song made famous with versions by The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan is my personal favorite on the set, showcasing the band’s wicked instincts with a killer narrative. The lone original is the wonderfully titled “Squirrel of Possibility,” an elegant mandolin and fiddle driven instrumental.

As a whole, both McKenna and Punch Brothers have turned in some exquisite work, each exploring different facets of their creativity all the while staying true to themselves as visionaries. I still would like to see McKenna challenge herself even more, with further exploration of songs in the vein of “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole.” Her ballads are still effective but are too frequent and beginning to fade into sameness, thus stripping them of their potent emotion.

Luckily Punch Brothers seem nowhere near the peak of their artistry, and Ahoy! shows a band built on taking daring risks that more often than not feature big pay offs for the listener. I can only dream about where the coming decades will take them, and if they stay as crisp and in tune as they are now, it’s going to be one heck of a prosperous musical odyssey.

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole* * *

Ahoy!* * * *

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