A little early career Joni Mitchell penetrates your ears as Filipino-American Megan Keely begins her 7-track album Bloom – and she also has some of the subtilities of the young Cris Williamson, Buffy Saint-Marie and the late Mimi Farina. Track one “Define American,” is typical strong-commentary — yet, it’s not in your face political or radical. It’s a pleasantly written tune asking a simple question, “how do you define American?”
At first, I wondered if Megan, who is from California, would maintain her style and she does on track two’s “Stronger,” – lilting, with a smooth vocal that displays a reminiscence of Pamela Polland (“Abalone Dream”), and the 70’s folk singer Melissa (“Medicine Mixin’). While Megan is not yet the songwriter that Judee Sill was (“Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” “The Kiss”), there is time because she does have some compelling words knotted with some tight simple melodies.
Controversial? Maybe, but Megan is not an in-your-face artist. She tells her story with subtle passion and not with rage. What do I mean? Well, she isn’t the Joan Baez of 1965. But it is a different day and age. Do we need a singer like Megan Keely? Yeah – she probably fills a credible position as she tells her compelling stories. She does unravel her work with about as much respect as a singer can and still get her point across. And even if you didn’t understand or care about her plight, Megan is a good songwriter. She is entertaining and that’s the bonus.
Track three unfolds with wonderful words – “Love Will Find You,” that continues in a strong Joni Mitchell-descriptive style. The songs don’t smack you in the face or play with dynamics of great musicianship and showboating. Obviously, Megan is more driven by the quality of her songwriting and it shows. Each sound as if she labored over how the words would work with the notes. Silence is a strong reply – she sings softly yet, she gets across to a listener a power in each song that is not necessary for the voice alone.
Taking a page from the Tish Hinojosa songbook Megan performs a traditional Spanish song in duet with Brandon Keely who also plays the acoustic guitar. “De Colores,” sounds a little lullaby retro but it’s in the performance that raises it to a level of beauty with two perfectly suited voices. The song is steeped in the farm workers movement and labor protests – but that doesn’t mean it’s about anger or revolt. It’s just people who need to express themselves when they are challenged, worked to the bone, not treated fairly and just need a damn break. Legendary Chilean folk singer Victor Jara died singing such songs…and virtually was executed as he sang.
The percussive, Buffy Saint-Marie stylized “Marcia Montgomery,” is filled with powerful effective 60’s folk music overtones. This is a classy tune. The song possesses descriptive words and a strong melody. Yes, it harkens back to another era, the old folk music times that would incorporate the train-hopping Woody Guthrie and the folkies with guitars and banjos in dim coffee houses in Greenwich Village, New York. There is a shallow quality in the simplistic method and it always leaves one feeling renewed by the intensity of the words and their melodies. Things don’t always have to be deep – that’s what made many of the early folk songs classic.
“San Gregorio,” follows and Megan is more upbeat yet, remains solidly in her modern-Mitchell approach. She isn’t mimicking Joni, she isn’t trying to sound like the Joni of old. She just sews her music together with the kinds of memorable scenes in her songs that Joni was famous for. What I like about Megan Keely is her free being in creating an ambiance within her tunes. She uses words many songwriters wouldn’t. She tries to reach for a more poetic level to tell a story. Is this song lyric true? Maybe. I don’t care. I want to believe Megan writes her songs from what has happened to her – for real. Like when Joni Mitchell wrote her little lyrical novellas. Each was taken from a real event. This is a delightful little song.
Closing out Bloom is one of the more melodic Megan Keely songs – “We Will Be Fine,” and it’s a beauty. An acoustic ballad, something someone would write on the back porch one summer day. The song has a Carole King quality, an early Carly Simon tone and Sheryl Crow manner. The folksiness is maintained and it’s not syrupy or hokey pokey. Maybe what it might need is a little edginess. That’s the one ingredient Megan lacks right now, but I am confident that will develop. Gabe Witcher’s winding dark guitar leads lend a lot of space and intensity in an otherwise simple song. This is one of Megan’s best – a good style for her. I think all she needs is to grow a bluesier edge, a jazzy frame, and more intensity. She has the voice, melodic sense and lots of ink in her pen. The musicians are all proficient and sound quite good in this setting.
Bloom is a good 23-minute introduction to an artist who is a folk-singer for the new century. With a little luck maybe, her voice will reach more ears. If she’s careful and chooses her subjects wisely she could be the next decades’ Judy Collins. Megan’s voice may not be able to hit the notes Collins’ did, but the warmth she has in her performance is worth the price to listen.
All songs were written by Megan Keely except “Stronger,” which she wrote with Brandon Keely and the traditional Spanish song. The album was produced by Brandon and Megan Keely except for “Define American,” where Gabe Witcher (Guitar and Drums) helped. “Stronger,” was produced by Brandon, Megan, Gabe and Steve Wyreman (Electric Guitars).
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / November 2018