May McDonough’s graceful Tin-Pan Alley flirtation, “Spilt Milk”, is a spiritual affair. It’s an album awash with concerns of sin, the devil, drowning, fantasies, lost relatives, and the dream of ditching a lifeless town. The record-opener, “Riverside”, is a jazz-infused slow drag with emotive piano and lower register vocals, reminiscent of a Fiona Apple lullaby, and fit for a gloomy descent. The songwriting is stunning. The lyrics an ambrosia of prolixity set to music as elegant as an arabesque: “It’s a mixed-up masquerade/ Penniless arcade … / See, joy around here / Comes in a little pink balloon / And if you got out of here / Yesterday, it would never be too soon / It’s a cardboard palisade / Pocket-change brigade / Every way is down.”
“Spilt Milk” is suffused with jazz and blues tones, and the occasional unconventional curveball. The songs range from Apple-like piano-based laments to upbeat, lighthearted gems like, “Mama Drained the Bathtub” — which sounds like a track on “I Am Shelby Lynne”. On “Church On Sunday”, McDonough’s voice carries a traditional blues melody, poised over the scratchy plucks of an electric guitar and drums so distance they sound like they’re in an entirely different room. The faint bang and clank of the latter, paired with McDonough’s smooth vocals, gives the song its double-edge. It’s floating divination meets a whisper of sulfur. “Your Body” begins with a rustic, out-of-tune sounding piano melody, then McDonough floats her vocals across it like two enmeshed lovers, proclaiming, “Romance is mostly being lied to … / I don’t want your body.” The song takes an irregular, but inspired turn, with the introduction of a tap-dancing track used as percussion, punctuating rising piano lines. The darkest track on the album, “House of Bones”, lyrically feels akin to the Appalachian classic “Oh, Death”. It’s a song about bereavement, the devil, and death — with a harrowing muted horn, resonating with a sadness like Michel Legrand’s collaboration with Miles Davis on “Dingo”. “Gone With the Snake” has an Aimee Mann vibe, circa “Magnolia Soundtrack”, with undulating piano and breathy vocals that glide across lush strings like a skater across ice.
The album is at its best when McDonough sings prettily against musical dissonance. Or in the reverse, on “Lay Down Your Heart”, where she distorts her voice through megaphone or some kind of delay, in front of dreamy xylophone, guitar and a chorus of “ooohs.” The lyrics of that song are nearly unintelligible, but it really doesn’t matter because the ache of her vocal intonation supplants the need to know the words. It’s enough to hear the swaying melody and feel the pathos.
McDonough can rock out a bit too. “Red Tag Nation” opens with a guitar and organ rhythm that calls to mind Dire Straits. It’s a beer-swilling , tavern-brawl ball of aggression, with a heavy blues foundation. Although, it might have been better to hear the instrumentals unravel more and sooner. About three-quarters into the song, the band deconstructs the groove with deliberate breaks in the music — intermittent drumming and bass purposefully trip over one another before the song closes with machinery noise. The last track, “I Know”, is two-and-a-half minutes of lovelorn uke, and two more minutes of the sound of a train rumble nearing and then buzzing by in the night.
It’s hardly surprising anymore that there are musicians as good as this out there just waiting to be heard. In a way, it’s a bit depressing to think about. This album is a must-buy. Stream the song below and then go out to May McDonough’s website to buy the record. You won’t be disappointed.
May McDonough “Riverside”