The mark of a great album lies in the ability to match exceptionally well-written and well-crafted songs, with an equally as powerful a singer. When one element is missing, the whole project fails. In the case of McKenna, she has crafted perfection. Lorraine is also the best country album by a female artist since Miranda Lambert’s Revolution. The mixture of both heartbreak and hope, coupled with a sense of deep longing, make this project sparkle. Never has the emptiness of loosing a parent at a young age (McKenna lost her mother when she was seven) been so palpable and the ache in moving forward so heartbreakingly real.
To listen to McKenna is to hear the truth of a woman who has endured and lived. She lives with her husband, a plumber, and their five children in Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was quietly perfecting her sound when, in 2005, she caught the ear of Faith Hill. Hill was so taken aback by what she heard, she demanded to hear everything McKenna had ever written. As a result, Hill included three of McKenna’s songs (“Stealing Kisses”, “Fireflies,” and “If You Ask”) on her 2005 Fireflies album. McKenna has since gone on to record a major label country album (2007’s Unglamorous) and have her songs covered by the likes of Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, singer/actress Mandy Moore, Jimmy Wayne, and most recently Keith Urban. And a track she co-wrote, “Chances Are,” was sung by actor Garrett Hedlund and included in the movie Country Strong. The major label deal has since ended, and her new album Lorraine, her given name, and that of her mother, is self-released through Signature Sounds.
McKenna’s greatest appeal isn’t her singing and songwriting – it’s the throwback nature of her music. She isn’t bred from the same cloth as Jennifer Nettles or Carrie Underwood and she’s more accessible to the mainstream audience than either Patty Griffin or Lucinda Williams. McKenna is most importantly a thinking person’s country singer, a modern day Emmylou Harris, and the rightful torchbearer of that all but dead subset of the genre. Her country is neither polished or glossy – it’s just her truth as she knows it.
On the 13 tracks, McKenna proves she is leaps and bounds ahead of her peers by actually having something substantive to deliver to her audience. By staying clear of the cliche machine that is Nashville, she never once succumbs to the trickery of the business. Making her mark by taking complete creative control and forging her own path, McKenna puts quality first – something sorely missing from 99 percent of the recordings emerging from Music City. Lorraine showcases a woman free to do what she pleases and deliver spectacular results.
The opening song, “The Luxury of Knowing,” recently scooped up by Keith Urban for the deluxe edition of his Get Closer album, sets the scene. Both somber and brooding, “Knowing” commands attention for McKenna’s stunning vocal alone. She stretches her unmistakeable twang further than ever before, creating an emotional ache so palpable you feel right along with her. Credit must also go to Urban who clearly knows a true gem when he hears it. It’s just too bad his version will never bring the song the mainstream attention it deserves. It hardly matters anyway, after hearing McKenna’s performance on the song, no one else will dare touch it.
Another standout track, “Still Down Here,” the story of a person talking to their loved ones up in heaven, is an early favorite for song of the year. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a close relative or friend will instantly relate to McKenna’s yearning to be remembered by those from beyond the grave. With all the attention focused squarely on “Knowing,” “Here” will likely be left in the cold. But if you only buy one song this year, make it this one. Very rarely does a song come along, especially nowadays, so compelling in nature. It’ll haunt you long after it’s over.
The remarkable thing about Lorraine is the production – never too loud or too soft, the musical arraignments fit each song perfectly. One mark of a great album is the ability to let the lyrics take center stage. When the musical arraignment swallows both the lyrics and vocal performances, all potential for greatness is lost. One could argue McKenna needs to rock a bit harder every now and then but what would that prove? Optimism and joy aren’t her nature and it isn’t like she’s looking to stand alongside Kenny Chesney at football stadiums. With Lorraine she’s found the perfect marriage every major label artist should be striving for – you don’t need to make noise to be heard. Let it be a lesson for everyone.
One could argue that McKenna spends far too long as the brooding sufferer – the wife begging for attention from the man who once couldn’t get enough (“Stealing Kisses”) or the woman allowing herself to forgive the man who strays (“If You Ask”). To listen to her music is to listen to someone hurting. You could also fault McKenna for still seeming stuck by the most significant moment of her childhood. But to write her off is to turn your back on one of the most important singer-songwriters working today. Lorraine is a masterpiece because of its authenticity and because it’s a clear anecdote to every current trend in country music. Simply put, Lorraine has visible heart and soul. She doesn’t pander or succumb to anyone but her own gut – and she’s all the better for it in the end. I couldn’t ask for more.