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Shannon McNally
Western Ballad
Sacred Sumac Records
www.shannonmcnally.com


Shannon McNally turns her easygoing alternative country sound on its ear for her latest collection of songs. Western Ballad was mostly co-written with producer extraordinaire Mark Bingham in his New Orleans studio while Shannon was hanging out, woodshedding and pulling ideas with the revered statesman of rock. McNally was in a fairly prolific time in her career and wasn't necessarily looking to collaborate or make an album, but in sitting around throwing ideas back and forth the pair conjured a nice working relationship. Bingham had long been looking for someone to put his old pal Allen Ginsberg's poem "Western Ballad" to song, and he found his match in McNally. The partnership blossomed perfectly and the result is the beautiful Western Ballad album.

"Memory Of A Ghost" starts the record off with a very Southwestern feel… the song is mostly acoustic guitars backed up by deeply tremoloed guitars and softly rolling drums that perfectly frame McNally's gritty, soft vocals. McNally's vocals have a lilting charm that subtly enriches her wonderful lyricism, and when Bingham chimes in, his voice is rich and thick with familiar memories. "High" boldly sticks its neck out, incorporating heavily-processed light drums and jangling guitars to great effect as McNally continues to impress with her vocal skills. "When I Am Called" is steeped in a high gospel tradition, not only in its lyrical content, but in the sound, cadence, and harmony of its beauty. I would reckon that this is one of the finest modern gospel songs that you've never heard and would love to hear someone like Alison Kraus work it into their repertoire. There is a particular bliss that reaches out when McNally lightly sings, "I will see the leaves change, I will learn to take the fall, I will go where I am called."

By the time "Western Ballad" shows itself, the album has set a nice, relaxed mood steeped in Americana and tradition which continues, adding slide guitar and heavily reverbed drums to build a beautiful soundscape. Ginsberg's lyrics are clear and telling, obviously serving as inspiration for much of the subject matter on the record, bringing together the gospel and rebellion, the rock and roll aspects of his writings. "True Possession" steps up the tempo and features some fine chicken pickin' style guitar, creating a country gospel tone that would fit right in on the Grand Ole Opry. McNally steps out and tries her hand at singing in French on "Tristesse Oubliee" and slows things down and makes things sound much larger than life on "Rock And Roll Angels". Bingham arranged a great version of the old-timey "Little Stream Of Whiskey" that has McNally sounding much like Bobbie Gentry as her clear falsetto jumps along on top of the marching snare and weirdly carnivalesque guitars that once more make the song sound like a brilliant and friendly classic country tune.

This collaboration would sit wonderfully in a musical library right next to the recordings that Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have made together, although the songs here tend to be a bit lighter and less tortured than those records have turned out to be. Moving from her erstwhile musical position somewhere between Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt, McNally makes great strides with her sound on Western Ballad. Taking a few risks is easy when one is working with someone as fabled and bold as Mark Bingham, and it surely paid off for her on this latest release. The songs are filled with depth and beauty, McNally cementing her place in the modern lexicon of alternative country music.

-Embo Blake

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