EDITOR’S NOTE: In December, we like to take a look back at albums we didn’t get around to reviewing earlier in the year. MECO was released in February.
If Lucinda Williams’ poetry and vocals met up with Etta James’ reaching-down-into-the-soul vocals, you’d have Amy McCarley’s song “High Wire.” Halfway through McCarley’s third studio album, she delivers this slow-burning soul number, creating a haunting, bluesy, swampy vibe. Producer and guitarist Kenny Vaughan’s string-bending lead phrases float along McCarley’s own crunchy rhythms, building layer upon layer of a sonic wall of sound. There’s a bright joy in the song that shines through McCarley’s vocals and lyrics.
McCarley’s canny songwriting shimmers on every track of MECO, an acronym borrowed from the Space Shuttle program that stands for “main engine cut off,” and she traverses a wide musical territory here with the help of Vaughan; Chris Scruggs on bass, drums, and steel guitar; Marty Stuart on mandolin; Pat Alger on guitar; Kenny Lovelace on fiddle; and Harry Stinson on backing vocals.
The album closes with a Byrds-like country swinger, “Farewell to Paradise,” that’s a scampering goodbye to an old way of life that nevertheless shivers with the ambivalence that comes with letting go and moving forward. On “Clarksdale Blues,” George Bradfute, who co-produced the album, creates a haunting atmosphere with layers of slide guitar, capturing the sweet and ragged regret of looking back even in the midst of embracing the hope of a new future. “Happy,” with verses floating along phrases from George Jones’ “Choices,” asks whether happiness lies within you or whether it requires a lifelong search: “Did you find happy / Can you tell me what it was? / Was it your imagination? / Did you have it for a moment? / Did you ever find happy? / For a while I thought you found it with us.”
MECO showcases McCarley’s cunning way of finding the universal in the mundane, of looking into vagaries of personal experience to plumb the depths of emotion and to lay bare the jagged edges of regret, hope, loss, and love.