Willie Reviews Angie McMahon’s “Salt”

Willie Reviews Angie McMahon’s “Salt”

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Australian singer-songwriter Angie McMahon’s debut album, Salt, takes place in a universe where the only requirement for rock and roll is an electric guitar that you know very well. She carries a big, rocker sound without giving up intimacy or negative space. Here’s RPM’s review:

On her debut album, Salt, Angie McMahon knows what works and sticks to it. The scratchy, lonesome sound of her guitar thrives in wide open spaces, so she lets it run loose. And oh, the things it can do! When she brushes her hand across the tops of the strings, they rattle. And when she drags a hand up and down the neck, it growls. The album contains both bonafide rock showpieces and ballads, all carried only by McMahon’s voice and guitar. It’s a lively, unstable medium between the singer-songwriter’s impulse to stay back and the rock star’s impulse to lay it all out. It’s always a nice surprise to see which will win out on any given track. The first chord on the record (on “Play the Game”) trips out of the gate in a way that signals the honesty of the rest of the music. I don’t mean to say that you should always expect to be tricked by a piece of music, but the prevailing mood here is openness.

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The tracks with big sounds on the record are still not too far removed from the solo guitar pieces. “Keeping Time,” a song which McMahon describes in its video’s description as a “love song to self-discipline,” shows all its pieces. The isolated drum beat at the start has a garage sound, steady and gritty. The massively catchy riff layers on top of that, and a rhythm guitar and bass follow throughout. There’s nothing else to it, and it sounds at once filled to the brim and very sparse. The goal seems to be to hit the required amount for a rock song and then go no further. The breakdown before the last refrain shrinks it down to the garage level one last time. Meanwhile, “Slow Mover,” features the full band but has a cooler demeanor. It gets loud, but McMahon’s vocals fill out the mix so much that it doesn’t need much more than the groovy hook.

The reason the rock comparison is such a ready theme is how purposefully out of step with it McMahon tries to be. It’s no wonder she’s a fan of Neil Young, seeing as she lands on the more deeply felt side of rock, somewhere between folk rock and rock rock. Her voice is huge and glides over the music in a way totally different than the thousands of guitarists who sing because it’s what you do. McMahon’s voice doesn’t just meet the requirements of a rock track, it’s a challenge to the music underneath it. Her chord progressions often feel very classic rock and the drums tend toward the backbeat—“Missing Me” has all this and even the word “baby”! But make no mistake, that song and the others are too specific to Angie McMahon to have a place on any of the records that influenced them. McMahon’s lyrical tenderness and sharp, cutting action feel fresher and more relevant than any number of clichéd sayings in rock.

Angie McMahon, photo by Paige Clark

That being said, my absolute favorite song on the record is “Pasta,” which features a whole parade of fantastically silly images. It’s a song about doing nothing, not for a celebration of quirkiness or not caring, but because humans will generally do nothing if not acted upon. The lines “And I spend so much time eating pasta / Although I’m probably allergic / And other people seem to move so much faster” are some of the truest and realest I’ve heard this year. McMahon doesn’t let the track have that satisfaction of building from a casual idea to a grand theme. Once you no longer care about a song or its internal structure or logic, you’re free to make a really fantastic song with a robust internal structure. I guess songwriting is funny that way. And doesn’t it help that the word “pasta” is, in and of itself, ridiculous?

The album ends acoustically, giving up the game of electrified rock. “If You Call” features shorter lines and a more delicate atmosphere, tapping into the folk side of folk rock. And it feels like a totally natural transition. I won’t spoil it too much, but to everyone’s surprise, there’s a lo-fi hidden track at the end all covered up with noise.

We have much to look forward to from Angie McMahon I hope. I know I would listen to an entirely acoustic follow-up to this album, or any follow-up at all. Maybe a cover of the full Neil Young discography? I suppose this is enough for now.

Score: Adding a whole cup of salt to the pasta water.

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