extra: guide to listening

By Tara Murtha

I never understood the idea that hindsight is 20/20. We know that years collapse even a life lived fully into a headful of scattershot snapshots that, in the end, reveal more about how we felt at a particular time in our life than reality. Nostalgia clouds minds.

Which is why I got to know Erin McKeown’s catalogue backwards. I listened to Hundreds of Lions first and Distillation last. I’m grateful, because I can hear Distillation in a way I can’t hear say, Ani DiFranco’s Dilate or Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville anymore. Listening to Distillation doesn’t feel like a heartache punched into my chest ten years ago; it doesn’t remind me of myself as someone else, a young girl full of courage, drunk on drama and amazed at the life unfurling before my eyes.

To me, Distillation just sounds what it is: Erin McKeown coming out her little corner of the world swinging.

Sonically, the album is beautiful. Recorded in a farmhouse studio on weekends while Erin was still in college, the woodsy warmth radiates through the songs. Close your eyes and listen, and after just the first plucked notes of Queen of Quiet, you’re not in the year 2000 or the year 2010 but in the cozy cabin, Erin standing there with her trusty green Gretch. Then you hear the first words Erin chose to introduce herself as an artist here and abroad:

“I’m the kind of lover who won’t blow your cover, what kind of lover am I?”

Talk about an aural fixation. Suddenly, people from all over the world were turned on to Ms. McKeown’s music via the little record that could, and Erin got to fly all over the world singing it for them.

So cool.

In trying to answer the cheeky trick question, fans found different answers, of course. The genre police struggled to categorize a woman who writes slick loops of literate lyrics and can also wail on an electric guitar like a … musician.

The flutters of old-time swing and jazz that pop and sway through the songs—some written in high school, for chrissakes–really had ‘em gob-smacked.

So some said quirky, or eccentric. Or, as one fan put it, “Emerson on Benzedrine.”

True, Distillation bubbles with vim and vigor. After Queen of Quiet dies down, fan favorite Blackbirds raunchily rattles alive with that now-signature bluesy riff and only gathers more momentum from there.

Erin, ever restless, has of course reinterpreted it over the years, even morphing it into what she jokingly refers to as her “Allman Brothers-style jam” when she plays it as an encore.

La Petit Mort and Fast As I Can also continue to be fan favorites and typically get to come out and play at concerts. But what I’m most excited to see Erin play at the Distillation anniversary shows are some gems that have just sort of organically slipped off set lists now crowded with favorites from six albums–like the elegant, elegiac How to Open My Heart in 4 Easy Steps, a hymn to heartache that makes my throat physically tighten, and feel like it’s bursting with birds.

Erin has said that she wrote and recorded Distillation back when she didn’t know how to make a record and that Distillation was originally going to be called Mistakes I’ve Made in My Sensitive Years. If only all of our mistakes bloomed into something so gorgeous, we wouldn’t need hindsight at all, would we?

Tara Murtha

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