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For Lori McKenna, "Bittertown" is the pill

By Dan Armonaitis, October 2004

Although normalcy is hardly the trademark of a folk singer's life, the career of Lori McKenna still manages to stand out from the careers of most of her musical peers.

After all, how many singer-songwriters wait until they're nearly 30 years old and are already busy raising three children before releasing their first album?

And how many singer-songwriters marry a blue-collar childhood friend and stay in the same small working-class town they grew up in?

But that's just the story for the 35-year-old McKenna, and it's that sort of life that brings an extra sense of realism to her recently released fourth album, "Bittertown."

McKenna, who now has two more children, delivers her best album to date with "Bittertown," (Signature Sounds) a collection that chronicles the hopes and regrets of ordinary small town residents in a manner that recalls early Bruce Springsteen with an angelic voice that compares favorably with Australian alt.-country sweetheart Kasey Chambers.

Lyrics such as "they marry young in these parts, they work in the factory" and "they're building up big houses back behind the school where we used to drink our beer on Friday night" aren't trite lines for McKenna.

They're honest salt-of-the earth portraits of a way of life she's observed while residing in the South Shore town of Stoughton, Mass.

The follow-up to her 2003 effort, "The Kitchen Tapes," a stripped-down album recorded at home with just her guitar and a cheap microphone, the new release finds McKenna armed with a full backing band, including a wide range of instrumentation ranging from piano and organ to drums and lap steel.

"I had done the stripped down thing, and I hadn't been in the studio in a long time," McKenna says from her home in Stoughton. "And we actually thought about doing another stripped down thing because I just wanted to get these songs out there. But it ended up working out great to get into the studio with a full band on the new record."

McKenna says she's "thrilled with the way (the album) turned out."

"I find myself just being excited that I'm on the record, never mind that my name is on it. I'm just so happy that I got to be involved in it and got to play with all these great musicians."

Among the many musicians featured on the album are Boston-area veterans Kevin Barry, Meghan Toohey and Joe Barbato, along with producer Lorne Entress, whose production work gives the album a polished, yet often raucous, sound. Vocal support on the album is provided by Chris Trapper of alt-pop outfit the Push Stars, Mark Erelli and Buddy Miller.

Miller's vocal work on the album opener, "Bible Song," a remake of a track featured on "The Kitchen Tapes," is a particular highlight.

"You can't mistake that voice," McKenna says. "We knew that song was going to be a part of the record before we knew that Buddy Miller was going to sing on it, but I think he just sounds perfect on it. It really sets the stage for the rest of the songs."

Unlike her previous albums that featured full instrumentation, "Bittertown" marks the first time McKenna performed live in the studio with a band.

"Before, I just went in and recorded my part, and we added things afterwards," she says. "The whole concept of keeping in time and all was a foreign experience for me. But by the time I made this record, I had played with a band a bunch of times, and I was a little bit more used to it. And these guys were just great to play with. So I really feel like this record is a big step for me. I feel like now I don't have to prove that they didn't just take my songs and make them beautiful because now I'm a part of the process. It was just a great experience."

The new album maintains the lyrical grittiness and the folk vibe of her previous material, but there's a definite leaning towards a more pop-rock sound. Songs such as "Mr. Sunshine," "Pour" and "Lone Star" have a sugary pop sweetness that would fit in nicely next to material by folk-pop duo the Kennedys."We didn't go in thinking we wanted to make (the album) poppy," McKenna says. "It just sort of evolved that way. But one thing about the record that I'm proud of is that we didn't change any of the basic arrangements for any of the songs, which is something that usually happens, especially with a singer-songwriter like myself who usually just plays solo. We pretty much kept all the songs true to the way I wrote them."

Although most of the songs on the album are drawn from McKenna's small town observations, at least one song was inspired by a big-time rock star. Yet even it has the uncanny ability to stay rooted in the experiences of regular townsfolk.

"('Lone Star') was started from a Beck show," McKenna explains. "I went to see Beck at the Iron Horse (in Northampton, Mass.), and I was just blown away. I watched him, and I started sort of picturing him as this little geeky high school student that ended up growing up to be a rock star. And I was kidding around with some people and said, 'I'm going to go home and write a song about Beck getting beat up in high school and now he's a rock star.' So, that song was written with Beck mind.

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