Shannon McNally’s Western Ballad – First-Class Gothic Americana

by delarue

This time of year makes as good a place as any to catch up on some of the good things lingering from last year, from the days before this blog existed. Shannon McNally’s Western Ballad album is one of them: if you like Neko Case or the darker side of the intersection where jangly rock meets country, this is for you. It’s been out in March of 2011, in fact, an understatedly evocative, smart, lyrically driven collaboration with New Orleans cult artist and producer Mark Bingham, who wrote about half the tunes here. McNally’s unselfconsciously pensive alto reminds a lot of more recent Emmylou Harris, rising matter-of-factly over a richly interwoven, jangly mesh of electric and acoustic guitars and a straight-up rhythm section.

The opening track, Bingham’s Memory of a Ghost (a southwestern gothic recasting of the Allen Ginsburg poem) sets the stage for pretty much everything afterward. It’s a wary shuffle that wouldn’t be out of place in the Patricia Vonne catalog, with a biting electric guitar solo by McNally herself. High, with its jangly Lucy in the Sky Beatlisms, is a quietly triumphant stoner anthem with a mellow yet vivid Jerry Garcia-ish guitar solo. “I recognize myself – how very nice to be home again,” McNally muses. They follow that with the understatedly morbid, gospel piano-driven When I Am Called and then McNally’s True Possession, a defiantly individualistic, brisk country shuffle, calmly assured vocals over tastefully rippling piano.

Sung in French, Tristesse Oubliee (Forgotten Sadness) is West Texas honkytonk with a little cajun flavor. Thunderhead, a Bingham song, returns to the echoey layers of tremoloing guitars and subtly doomed imagery. The strongest track here might be McNally’s Rock & Roll Angels, a long, slowly swaying 6/8 ballad with a Leonard Cohen/Richard Thompson vibe, a chilling if sympathetic portrait of someone on the way down who couldn’t resist more than one kind of lure. “Rock & Roll Angels and barroom saints reliving your checkered pasts, tumble in your hallelujah chorus,” McNally begins. “Will you always be broke, choking on slivered dreams?”

Toast, another Bingham track, is a swaying funk-tinged oldschool soul song with more vintage Jerry Garcia style guitar. McNally’s version of the traditional bluegrass tune Little Stream of Whiskey has a Dolly Parton-esque feel, while Bingham’s big, majestic ballad In My Own Second Line sounds like the Pretenders circa 1982 doing Americana. It’s a good bet that if you follow Americana these days, you already know about this; if not, it’s a good listen all the way through.