A u g u s t   2 0 0 3


'Goner' is her new CD

What McKinley really needs
by Mark Anderson

cKinley's new CD, Goner, brings to mind the first time I stumbled across her act.

McKinley: the one name is plenty. ["mckinley," by Mary Bergherr]

It was five years ago and McKinley played the part of the waifish folksinger at a Northeast Portland art exhibit. She stood in a corner and soloed for an after-work cocktail crowd that could barely be bothered.

Warm voice, sophisticated songs, friendly face – it was no bother.

McKinley switched easily between acoustic guitar and bass and told quirky stories between numbers. And when she covered "When Doves Cry," well, a guy almost could have died.

I played the part of the nervous, inarticulate guy.

"I'm from Minnesota," is what I probably mumbled when she finally took her break. "And, ah, um, I like Prince, too."

But McKinley bailed me out. "Then," she smiled, "you should come see my band next week at the Aladdin Theater."

By the next week the waif was no more. Now McKinley fronted an uncanny, articulate band. She still switched easily between six-string and bass. But she was flanked by a trio of passionate players, including Matt Chamberlain and Brad Houser from the eclectic Seattle-based jazz-funk instrumental group, Critters Buggin'.

The trio made frequent Seattle-to-Portland trips to play around town with McKinley. These were serious players and their sound enveloped a room. They knew how to handle their volume and when to leave wide-open spaces between the notes – a perfect style for McKinley's songs which, though calm on the surface, often shift like sand in the desert.

The Aladdin show was sublime.

Goner: McKinley's latest. (Click to visit McKinley's site.)

As it turned out, she'd already released two polished full-length albums, McKinley in 1995 and Big Top Shop Talk in 1998. She'd toured as David Crosby's opening act. And her mechanical engineering degree begot some interesting show-biz lore – McKinley secured the recording contract on the eve of starting a real-world job.

But the five years since have often been less than kind to the 32-year-old Portlander.

In July the Oregonian reported that McKinley recently saw her relationship go south, dealt with serious family health problems, sold her house to finance the new album and has been living rootlessly as an itinerant dog-sitter.

And, after what was described as "ineffectual days at the office" related to the album-recording process, the newspaper said McKinley recently got fired from an engineering job. The Oregonian's headline: "McKinley shakes off her complex sounds for a comforting hug in a world of hurt."

Goner's title song explores that newfound simplicity while turning sadness and loss into uplift and redemption.

"Summer's burned out the green," she begins. "Left us blond and stunned and standing in between lucky and crushed, and time's up.

"I'm on a holiday from you," McKinley sings, "I didn't quite add up to what you'd imagined.

"I'm thinner, smaller, now I'm such a goner."

By song's end, McKinley has built that eight-word sing-along refrain into a soaring, shimmering rhapsody. It sounds like a hit and much of the rest of the 10-song album is nearly as fine.

"Amsterdam" flashes a handful of hooks. "Pusher" pits dark, vivid lyrics against an undertow of ear-pleasing jazz. "Stranger's Windows" takes on a claustrophobic yet invitingly trippy air. "Supergirl," despite being wrapped in too much arrangement, is a lovely melody with soothing chord changes. "Lemonade" ruminates on death and dying through an old man's eyes. "Tired" asks if we shouldn't back off a bit on God, that perhaps we work him too hard and he has a right to be tired.

Big Top Shop Talk: The 1998 release.

The album, catchy from the outset, improves with repeated listening. And even in a seemingly facile state, McKinley doesn't shy from angst, bile and bite; the new songs are relatively simple, not simplistic.

So maybe the plan is to let the world latch onto the new album now, then eventually catch up with the previous CDs.

Maybe. But the world doesn't often work that way.

Five years ago I brought a pair of favorite workmates along to the Aladdin.

Amy, a great music lover, has since moved to Boston but we're closer than ever. We caught an acoustic McKinley at the Bitter End when Amy visited Portland just last month.

Innie, the other workmate, is a woman of refined tastes with daughters near my own age. She saw McKinley that night because she lived nearby and only wanted an excuse to check out the inside of the Aladdin.

And she seemed to enjoy the show. But during one of McKinley's more harrowing story-songs, Innie nodded toward the stage, then leaned over toward my ear. "That little girl," she whispered, "has clearly got some issues."

I chew on that unsolicited observation still. And the best I can surmise is that, indeed, that's where art so often comes from.

The other day, with Amy back in Boston, I e-mailed a link to the Oregonian story and noted that Goner was on heavy rotation at my house.

McKinley: the self-titled 1995 release.

"Me too with the McKinley disc," Amy wrote back. "Over and over and over. She does have this lovely, downward, sad tilt to her voice, doesn't she. But I also think this album lacks the texture of Big Top Shop Talk. The storytelling isn't as rich on Goner, although "I'm thinner, smaller, now I'm such a goner" resonates.

"My favorite part of the Oregonian interview," Amy added, "is where McKinley talks about the new album: 'It's certainly not as cool as the others and I'm certainly not as cool as I was. I'm just a little worried about myself, about what I'm doing here, and it shows.'

"I love this kind of bareness," Amy wrote. "Sweet. I think McKinley needs a hug."

Maybe so – McKinley probably could use a hug and a hit. But what she really needs is to keep doing what she's doing, because she seems like a natural at taking life's twists and turns and making them into art.

And with any kind of luck, McKinley's best is yet to come.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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