Shannon McNally characterises her seventh album Western Ballad as “psychedelic Americana,” but only the second half of that description rings especially true; this is American music to its core, McNally, armed with her guitar, standing poised at some imagined leyline crossing of country, soul, blues and rock. The songs, though, are less balanced, and the album is very much a hit and miss affair, journeying through the American West from the Native American landscape of album opener ‘Memory Of A Ghost’, rooted in hidden intentions, to McNally’s beloved New Orleans (she and longtime collaborator Mark Bingham were living in the city at the time of Hurricane Katrina, and Western Ballad was being worked on as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill threatened the Louisiana coast) and on to San Francisco, the spiritual home of the beat poets.
The link there is the album’s most obvious talking point; a certain Allen Ginsberg wrote the lyrics to the title track, and was collaborating with Bingham on a new arrangement of the piece in the late 1980s. McNally’s version, for all its accomplishment, sadly adds little of interest, sinking into MOR territory and rarely finding new insight. Another song that surprisingly fails to catch light is ‘Tristesse Oubillee’, a 3/3-time Cajun waltz straight from the Louisiana swampland. Elsewhere, the busy, upbeat ‘Little Stream Of Whiskey’ revels in its military drum march and steel guitars and ‘Rock & Roll Angels’ impresses with its sketching of the broken heart of the smalltown American dream.
Other standouts are the resolved ‘When I Am Called’ and the unabashedly country ‘True Possession’, where McNally sounds at her most unhindered. That approach won’t win her many new fans so it’s good to hear her branching out, and the payoff in the long-run will most likely be better than Western Ballad, an album that’s well meaning on the surface but unconvincing at its core.
[Sacred Sumac; February 7, 2011]
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