By Al Kaufman
Longtime fans of Erin McKeown have watched her evolve from introspective folky, to pop hell raiser, to swinging mama. While her music has grown and changed, so has she as a person. With each album she has been more and more outspoken in regards to social justice. It all culminates with Manifestra, an album as strong politically at it is musically.
Too often when artists feel they have something important to say, they leave things like artistry and musicality wanting. But McKeown is too talented to fall into these trappings. She knows the music is the message, and it sparkles and sizzles throughout Manifestra. McKeown throws in horns, strings, beats and anything else that will compliment her sound without overtaking it.
“The Politician” sounds like Eurythmics back in Annie Lennox’s glory days. McKeown’s multi-tracked voice bristles with sexuality as she spits out lyrics from a politician’s mouth such as, “If nobody knows, tell me what’s the crime?/Between me and God, tell me what’s the crime?” Sure, easy target, but it sounds so good.
“In God We Trust,” again covering hypocrisy, begins with a hot tech beat before giving away to rich guitar sound. “The Jailer” starts off a capella, with a gospel blues edge before it develops a dance beat to it. She even throws in some flute flourishes for good measure. “That’s Just What Happened” opens as a dark, New Orleans-style blues number about the demon alcohol, complete with a muted trumpet solo, before it morphs into an American number the likes of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It’s smoky, shadowy and inexplicably joyous all at once.
McKeown also understands the value of friends. “Manifestra” is a poetic talking song in the vein of her good friend and sometime label mate, Ani DiFranco. Ryan Montbleau handles duet duties on the charmingly poppy “Instant Classic.” And “Baghdad to the Bayou,” another song with a New Orleans feel, was co-written with friend and MSNBC poster child Rachel Maddow. About the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf Coast, the song has been getting the most ink because of the marquee name. It is not the strongest cut on this collection, but if it gets people to listen to the other gems on here, it is worth it.
And for those who think that McKeown relies too heavily on strings, horns, and engineering feats to make her songs come alive are encouraged to purchase the deluxe edition of Manifestra, which offers a second disc of Erin and her guitar playing acoustic versions of all the songs. The stripped down songs still hold up, and serve to better showcase McKeown’s crystalline vocals and clever lyrics, while still being able to demonstrate great melody.