Lori McKenna is not really a country artist, and would make no claims to be one. However, several of her songs have been picked up by mainstream country performers, and this album, originally released independently in 2004, was the one which allowed her to break through to national attention when Faith Hill covered three Mcenna songs, two of them from Bittertown, on her 2005 album Fireflies. This persuaded Warner Bros to sign Lori to a recording deal, and they re-released Bittertown.
Unfortunately I don’t find her voice particularly attractive to listen to, lending a harsh edge on songs like ‘Mr Sunshine’ while her diction can be muddy, burying the interesting but complex lyrics and making it hurt to establish exactly what she is saying.
The brooding ‘Bible Song’, about dissatisfaction with a restrictive small town life, which was later recorded by Sara Evans, is one of the best songs. Lori’s raw vocals work well here, and are actually more effective conveying the bitter emotions surrounding a young father’s suicide than Sara Evans’s more polished interpretation. Buddy Miller sings backing vocals.
‘Stealing Kisses’ and ‘If You Ask’ were two of the songs covered by Hill. The former is the wistful thoughts of an unhappy housewife, the latter is a slow burning wearied love letter to the unworthy and self destructive man the protagonist loves. Both are good songs.
Lori’s vocals are at their most effective on the sultry and atmospheric ‘Pour’, a downbeat bluesy number about being abandoned and stolen from by a lover she still hankers after.
I also rather like the confessional ‘Monday Afternoon’ about someone (probably an alcoholic, given that she’s drinking on the Monday afternoon of the song’s title) struggling to live a good life, although her diction is a bit hard to decipher at times, and I was grateful for the lyrics being printed in the booklet:
I know I promised you
That the Lord would be my friend
But the Lord and I don’t get along so very good …
I wish I was a better person
I don’t want to work at it
It should come naturally
‘Lone Star’ is quite an interesting story about childhood bullying of those who don’t fit in, but who later succeed in life while their tormentors crash and burn – not necessarily realistic, but at least a more measured and mature treatment of the theme recently used by Taylor Swift in her hit song ‘Mean’.
‘One Man’ is a love song about teenage sweethearts who have stayed together and abandoned youthful dreams of escape for a life together in the town they grew up in, and isn’t bad. ‘The Ledge’ has an ambitious melody her voice can’t quite carry off, and a lyric which is very metaphorical and frankly baffling.
‘My Sweetheart’ is potentially very charming and has a nice acoustic backing, but the vocals sound flat. ‘Cowardly Lion’ is an angry attack on an unsatisfactory husband, and is a bit loud and tuneless for me. The last two songs, ‘Silver Bus’ and ‘One Kiss Goodnight’ both have interesting lyrics but droning tunes.
This record is interesting and ambitious, and Lori is a talented songwriter, but aurally it doesn’t work for me. However, I can see why it would appeals to fans of contemporary singer-songwriters with more of an emphasis on the songs than their interpretation.