Album Review

Lori McKenna – Numbered Doors

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Accomplished and acoustic, Numbered Doors delivers ten ‘mighty fine’ new Lori McKenna songs

The initial plan was to cut a five-song, acoustic EP of McKenna’s latest creations, supported only by long-time sideman Mark Erelli who would also occupy the producer’s chair. She booked a couple of days at Chris Rival’s Middleville Studio in North Reading, Massachusetts, in mid-March. On the morning of day two, rather than sweeten the songs completed the previous day, with overdubs, Erelli suggested they up the ante and record a further handful of tunes. The result is Numbered Doors -- a ten-song collection of vignettes about love and marriage, success and failure, and pretty much every stopping-off point between. 

As for the title song, a clue to the place of its birth resides in the backlit, female shadow that traverses the motel corridor in Erelli’s liner artwork. Of the legion of ghosts who expended time within motel room walls, McKenna muses on her website:

the stories that started or ended. Think of all the feelings given into and the ones ignored. All the gossip that room could spit out about all the strangers that have come through. Ourselves included. The love made, the promises, the lies, the turning points and last hopes, the prayers. 

If the foregoing is a synopsis of the where and what, then creation of the end result simply required two voices, a gaggle of 6- and 12-stringed acoustic guitars (plus a smidgen of mandolin), and two days locked away from public gaze. Erelli's time-served, intimate knowledge of McKenna's work was obviously a weighty factor in the recording and mixing of this project, and his stringed instrument work is intricate and appropriate without becoming intrusive. Less is often more, after all.

McKenna's name is appended as composer to every song, half-a-dozen of which were co-written. One of the latter, “The Time I’ve Wasted,” opens this collection. It was penned with Grammy-winning songwriter/Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose and Jesse Walker (a writer at Liz Rose Music). In it, the world-weary narrator initially reflects on bygone days: “I could have walked around the world a couple of times / I could have swam across the ocean and back again.” The immensity of her frustration is encapsulated with the line, “I could have dug out the Grand Canyon with a spoon.” While confiding, “for everything I’ve lost, I’m not mad at love,” full-blown aggravation resides in the accumulated “time I’ve wasted on you.”

In “Numbered Doors,” the bride is married in “a borrowed dress nobody wanted back,” following which the happy couple drive off into the sunset. Could this be a tale that ends happily? Bored by a waitressing job in a small town that doesn’t even “…have a 5 and dime,” the (once young) bride overdoses in a motel room.

Singer/songwriter/ recording artist/touring musician Dean Fields, who co-wrote of “Stranger in His Kiss,” was raised in Richmond, Virginia and is currently Nashville based. In the latter title, shooting straight from the hip, the no-nonsense (but extremely suspicious) narrator enquires, “Could a friend like you be the stranger in his kiss?”

While “God Never Made One of Us to Be Alone” may seem a wordy title, the emotions that McKenna embraces across those four-and-a-half minutes are intense and genuine. It's the second of four McKenna-only-penned tunes here, describing the latter as a diamond significantly undersells it. Her third contribution, which follows, is the equally powerful “All A Woman Wants” (“She’s the only one you want to be laying beside.”)

Singer-songwriter Drew Kennedy was also raised in Virginia, but he’s Texas-based these days. His co-write with McKenna, “Rose Of Jericho, portrays love that is languishing. The couple in “Love to Be Cruel For” (performed here as a duet with Erelli,  was penned with Brooklyn-based Ben Fields) are still together, but a few steps farther apart than they perhaps were in “Rose of Jericho.”

Balancing the foregoing negative with some positive, the fourth McKenna-only original equates to the recipe for a “Good Marriage.” While not detracting one iota from McKenna’s six quality co-writes, here the four she penned on her own simply sparkle. Did I mention that McKenna is in great voice throughout this set? In the penultimate “Three Kids, No Husband” -- a collaboration with solo recording artist on the rise Brandy Clark -- the central character is a waitress/mother who is barely getting by (“A hand and a shoulder and a referee”), of whom the narrator ultimately concludes, “A real life hero if you ask me.”

“Starlight” -- written with Georgia-bred, Nashville-based hit songwriter Hillary Lindsey and the aforementioned Liz Rose, closes Numbered Doors. In that song, expressing a universal emotion, a weary housewife hopes for better times to come. and

Brought to you from the desk of the Folk Villager.

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