"Secure in my role of 'band member,' one-fifth of the roots-rock band the Picketts for the past 10 years," writes Christy McWilson in her Hightone Records bio, "I always thought I'd step out in front of a firing squad before I'd step out on my own as a 'solo artist.' Luckily for me, Dave Alvin saw it differently."
McWilson goes on to relate how the Seattle-based Picketts issued three albums much beloved by old-school college/alternative rockers and No Depressioneers alike, incidentally then succumbed, in her words, to "some mysterious band malaise, dwindling down to the occasional Northwest gig and a noticeable dearth of recording." That's where Picketts fan Alvin stepped in, commandeering the L.A. studio of Mark Linett (the longtime industry vet responsible for overseeing the remastering of the Beach Boys Capitol-era records) and, as producer, assembling a stellar cast of players to cheer McWilson on: Rick Shea and Pete Buck on guitars/mandolins (Alvin also contributed some licks), Don Heffington on drums, Bob Glaub and Walter Singleman on bass, plus drop-in guests that included Mike Mills, Rhett Miller, Greg Leisz, Syd Straw, Skip Edwards and Chris Gaffney. And if that doesn't sound like a roots-rock summit par excellence -- not to mention extra star power by way of the twin R.E.M. connection -- well, you just ain't been paying attention, now, have you?
If a person can be measured by those who surround him or her, then perhaps we may say that a song stylist is measured by the tunes finding their way into the singer's aura. Those songs are, after all, living, breathing creatures. None so alive as Brian Wilson's fragile, slipping-off-the-edge classic "'Til I Die," from the great Surf's Up, which found its way to McWilson (the Linett association no doubt, or perhaps via Buck, an avowed Wilson disciple). Amid a backdrop of whispery mandolin (Buck), weeping pedal steel (Leisz) and burnished 12-string (Shea), McWilson floats across the tune's oddly complex melodic changes like the same "cork on the ocean" described in the lyrics, and in a voice so heartrendingly sweet yet drenched in such otherworldly sadness it practically brings you to your knees. Actually, it does: The closing moments, when she duets and harmonizes with herself on the lines "These things will be/Until I die" bring crushing home a sense of existential loneliness comparable to that brief, punched-in-the-stomach feeling one gets when thinking about a family member, friend or lover who left the Earth far too soon. (It's interesting to ponder what Wilson thinks of McWilson's version; he's currently performing "'Til I Die," one of his most personal compositions, in concert, and it also appears on his recent Internet-only live album. Linett continues to work with Saint Brian, so he's most likely played the tune for the genius composer.)
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The rest of the 12-song disc features lovely, luscious originals, ranging from the country-folk of the Emmylou Harris-like title cut and the gentle Patsy Cline-goes-Tex Mex "Today Is Yesterday's Tomorrow," to the upbeat twang 'n' yodel of "Little Red Hen" and the honky-tonk stomp of "Cryin' Out Loud." Throughout, McWilson offers lucid observations about what it means to go through life with the usual litany of complaints and regrets but find the strength to learn from, not wallow in, them. Sometimes these lessons come slowly, as in "The Lucky One," where dashed dreams gather over time like troublesome lumps in a mattress. Other times, as in "Cryin' Out Loud," it's easier to just gather the wagons around; sings McWilson, "There's nothing so relieving/As howling at the moon."
As joined by the musicians listed before, McWilson has the kind of dream musical accompaniment far more famous talents would kill for -- not to mention the songs to go with the accompaniment. Count this album among the season's most storied debuts.