Shannon McNally – Western Ballad


Recently I received the above listed CD towards the release of which I made a small contribution through Kickstarter.  So, let’s get to it!

The CD starts off almost as well as I could hope.  “Memory of a Ghost” combines a great tune, great singing, and a playful musical mix that suits the lyric well.  If there’s a complaint, it’s that her collaborator’s (Mark Bingham) voice, playing the role of the ghost, is a bit muddied in the mix.  Next is “High,” a reverb soaked song about, well, feeling good, but more from joy rather than from indulgence. 

“When I Am Called” moves towards an Americana/folk style that contrarily holds fast to the guitar reverb.  Again, it’s a vocal showcase, though not a one blessed with a particularly deep lyric.  “Western Ballad,” the title track, is an Alan Ginsberg poem that invites speculation on the loss of love and the loss of life, punctuated by a military snare.  It’s not particularly cheery, and it’s an interesting choice for the album title, though not textually misleading as her style mixes folk, Native American elements, and, to my regret, Country (or as it used to be known, Country & Western).

And that’s the musical style that we find ourselves with “True Possession,” which seems to be about finding strength in oneself.  I think, anyway, as lyrics were not included.  Nevertheless, it’s a song that I’d be interested in hearing with a more aggressive rock or blues attitude.  The over-the-top country guitar licks at the end of the song subtract.

McNally Letter

Next up is “Tristesse Oubliee,” which is sung entirely in French.  As the CD was recorded in New Orleans, I’m certain it has a personal meeting, possibly a forgotten sadness if Google was any help at all.   Despite its merits, I’m just one of those people that runs when I hear pedal steel.

“Thunderhead” would be my favorite song on the CD were it not for an unworthy refrain.  It’s a lilting song with a vocal style similar to Richard Ashcroft (of The Verve); it just needs a musical hook.  Perhaps she’ll revisit this styling in the future.  “Rock and Roll Angels,” despite its promising title, is a rather plodding C&W affair.  The timbre and nuance in McNally’s voice is suited to a number of styles – this one just doesn’t appeal to me. 

When I see “Toast,” I can’t help but think bread with butter… maybe some grape jelly if there’s time.  It might help if this song were titled “A Toast" or “I Toast” just to clear the expectations for people like who get preoccupied when 1 + 1 fall just short of 2.  It has fairly straightforward pop appeal and is an enjoyable song.

The militia snares return with collaborator/producer Mark Bingham’s “Little Stream of Whiskey,” … with a sort of C&W “good times” feel to it.  The best part of this song is that it stretches McNally’s voice to lovely effect.  The nuances when she descends to a speaking voice harken back to “The Hard Way” off her fantastic 2005 release, Geronimo.   Though, well, there’s that pedal steel again…

The CD closes with “In My Own Second Line,” a song which her producer says “reflects the affliction of madness to the degree that the singer is truly in their own world and in their own marching parade.”  I don’t quite pick that up, but it’s a suitable notion to close an effort that finds McNally delivering a more cohesive, relaxed, and enjoyable performance than when last heard on 2009’s uneven Coldwater

I don’t know that Western Ballad will win new fans, but it has a number of very good songs to strengthen her repertoire.   She certainly plays to her strengths, with a spacious acoustic landscape that lets the inflections in her voice be heard. I remain a fan, but admittedly hope that she finds a producer who will collaborate less and demand a bit more.  And, of course, one who doesn’t advocate pedal steel.

Recommended Songs: “Memory of a Ghost,” “HIgh,” “Thunderhead”

3 of 5 STARS



Not an official video release, but it features the best song on the CD