Over the course of five albums Annie Keating has crept up on the inside to come level with peers such as Patty Griffin, Gretchen Peters and Suzy Boguss and Make Believing is perhaps her most accomplished album to date. At first listening it’s more upbeat than its predecessors with a sunny disposition contained in many of the songs thanks to the well tempered playing, in particular the wonderful harmonica playing of Trina Hamlin which summons up memories of sun dappled days listening to country rock such as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Keating continues to sing wonderfully, her voice occasionally a wounded flutter (Blabber’n’Smoke even likened her to Melanie here) but for the most part she’s a seemingly effortless, almost sultry delight.
Recorded live for the most part over one weekend there’s a cohesiveness to the playing, a fine organic rooting through country and even soul on the organ drenched Still Broken. The opening song, Coney Island sets the scene with harmonica, rippling guitars and mandolin evoking carefree times as Keating conjures up the sense of dizziness experienced by young lovers on a day out in funland, a perfect aural equivalent to the faded Kodachrome snapshot of the big wheel that adorns the album cover. Sunny Dirt Road waltzes in with a country fiddle flourish and again Keating seems to be reminiscing about young love, this time in a honeysuckled south, but from here on in this youthful sense of optimism is lost as Keating moves into a more introspective mode more akin to her earlier albums. While Foxes, Know How To Fall and One Good Morning are all delivered with a skip in the step the lyrics are darker with the latter a forlorn yearning for one day with no bad news. Sink Or Swim is a gutsy riposte to bad news with a damned if we do, damned if we don’t attitude and a breezy delivery while Just Up Ahead is a sublime swoon of a song laden with plaintive guitar as Keating hunkers down and decries the futility of optimism. The arc of youthful joy to adult acceptance is completed in the Peter Pan like Lost Girls, a fantasy attempt to recapture lost innocence and again a wonderful performance with harmonica huffing away over a tremendous glistening sheen of guitar. Towards the end there’s the aforementioned gospel tones of Still Broken which is almost a confessional, an admission of failure as Keating sings “they say that time heals all but I’m still broken today, my guitar’s in the corner, I don’t want to play, my throat is so dry, I can’t seem to sing anyway.” Reminiscent of Satisfied Mind with organ swirls and a slow building climax and sounding as if were recorded in Muscle Shoals Still Broken is a minor masterpiece.
Whether this is a concept album that goes around like the wheel on the cover we don’t know but it’s certainly a powerful jolt of an album that should assure Ms. Keating’s ascendancy to the top ranks of Americana singer songwriters.