'Goner' is her new CD
What McKinley really needs
new CD, Goner, brings to mind the first time I stumbled
across her act.
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
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
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,
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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