First up, here’s another album added to the list of contenders for best of the year when we start to tally up soon. In addition, we have to add Carson McHone, from Austin, Texas, to the list of female artists who have really injected some fire into the Americana scene of late. McHone, who was playing in Austin bars at the age of 16 has had two previous releases (an EP and an album) but Carousel is her first fully fledged outing which captures in several of the songs an Austin honky tonk sound but in others shows that she is straining at the leash to catapult herself into the top echelons of singer/songwriters working in a country vein.
With producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Patty Griffin) at the helm and with a great squirreling country band behind her, McHone delivers her more traditional numbers with style and plenty of energy although she doesn’t follow the rulebook. The opening Sad is rife with pedal steel, twang guitar and fiddle as McHone dips and dives throughout the song which switches tempo from plaintive country waltz to bar room grittiness. Lucky, a grand song about a philanderer is even more pronounced in its division between McHone’s tear-filled laments in the verses and her sardonic and jaunty chorus. There is a fully fledged dive into gutsy country rock on Good Time Daddy Blues with the band barrelling along in best trucker fashion and on Maybe They’re Really Just Good Friends McHone dips into western swing in an excellent fashion.
In the grand tradition McHone sings mainly of women in trouble with the main problem being their men folk but she offers her version of living a life in bars on the spindly Dram Shop Girl which with its rattling percussion, mournful fiddle and woozy guitar solo captures splendidly the sense of seeing life through a glass. Drugs is more direct in its depiction of addiction with the band approximating at times Lou Reed’s VU songs with the pedal steel conjuring up a sense of narcotic euphoria as McHone repeats a mantra singing over and over the line, “I need drugs.” Moving even further from the mainstream the introduction to Gentle sounds almost like The Grateful Dead warming up for a jam with Phil Lesh like bass lines although when the song itself weighs in it is more of a fiddle sawed country lament with some cosmic pedal steel licks adding to its lustre.
McHone closes the album with three songs which really see her moving away from the honky tonks. How ‘Bout It is a spare piano ballad, almost a torch song, where she waxes poetic in a love reverie while Goodluck Man has her voice up close with evocative guitar murmurings, the song approaching the ambient style of Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball. Finally, there’s Spider Song which has a creaking harmonium adding a fine patina to a song which sounds as if it’s been dredged from an antebellum age while the lyrics could have come from a Child ballad with their chilling imagery.
While the cohabiting of the more traditional country fare and the latter folkier numbers might have made for an odd combination the album works well as one listens to it. There’s a sense that McHone is set to move on and that this is a transitional album. She says of country music that, “I want to do more with the form, push myself past where I understand it to be.” She’s certainly made a grand start here.