August 2000

Christy McWilson - The Lucky One
HighTone HCD 8119
Released: 2000

by Marc Rigrodsky

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]I have to be honest -- this one looked like trouble. Christy McWilson’s solo debut, The Lucky One, just oozed bad vibes. Genuine Americana music from Seattle? Home of grunge, expensive coffee and the WTO protest? Seattle is almost in Canada, and Canada isn’t Americana -- it’s, well, Canadian. Dark clouds of skepticism also arose from McWilson’s choice of producer, Dave Alvin. Indeed, it was not long ago that he produced the lamentable, genuine roots imitation Loose Diamonds by Katy Moffatt. Mr. Roots Rock seemed poised to offer up another shiny piece of L.A.-recorded distaff Americana fluff. (More honesty -- many years ago I bought an album by Alvin’s original group, The Blasters, and was sorely disappointed when The Blasters didn’t blast; not that I would hold a grudge for 15 years or so...).

So imagine my surprise when the first words out of McWilson’s mouth on the first track are "Ain’t I the lucky one?" It isn’t a rhetorical question, but rather a sarcasm-laced assertion. She declares later in the song that "Happiness ain’t nothing but misery to me." Cool. This first song, "The Lucky One," sets the tone for an album’s worth of pessimistic observations on love and life, cloaked by McWilson’s beautiful, soulful singing and her all-pro studio band (including Alvin, Peter Buck of R.E.M., and L.A. session veteran Bob Glaub).

On "Someday," McWilson sings "Someday I’ll be someone I haven’t been yet." Her dissatisfaction and longing are disguised in an up-tempo bit of '50s rock and roll. "Weight of the World" mines similar territory in a country-rock setting ("Someday I’m gonna be free from the weight of the world on me"). "Wishin’" is a traditional country weeper ("Seems to me that wishin’ doesn’t always make it so"). "Yesterday’s Tomorrow" features some wonderful roller-rink organ. Still, the album’s highlights are "Eloda" and "Fly Away," in which McWilson cuts her pipes loose on some stirring harmonies. The only dud here is the cover of Brian Wilson’s "‘Til I Die," with its clichéd images and morbid self-pity.

The emotional impact of McWilson’s songs are undercut to some extent by the glossy arrangements and the beauty of her voice (compare and contrast, for example, Leonard Cohen, whose gruff, strained vocals perfectly match the pathos of his songs, and who uses sweet female backing vocals as a kind of heaven-and-hell counterpoint). She does not project the kind of edgy angst so brilliantly conveyed by guest vocalist Rhett Miller’s band, the Old 97's (their cow punk masterpiece, Too Far To Care, genuinely sounds from start to finish like a man on the verge of suicide from a relationship gone bad). Also, McWilson’s twang by way of Seattle sounds contrived.

Still, McWilson has something to say, and she says it well. In a pop world dominated by such vacuous acts as Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, that counts for a lot.