On his new CD, Down Home, Ryan McNally really is back home.
After rocking out with his rockabilly band, Sasquatch Prom Date, and fusing folk and electronica in his collaboration with Kyle Cashen, McNally returns to his true love, the blues.
Although he assembled a backing band of some of the best musicians in the Yukon, including Rob Bergman (upright bass) and Lonnie Powell (drums), it’s McNally’s voice that stars on this album.
It’s a voice that reminds me a bit of Tom Waits: it’s often rough, as if his larynx has been scraped with sandpaper, and other times it’s smooth and rich, like crude oil.
Admittedly, McNally sounds more human than Waits does.
Accompanying that voice, McNally adds a subtle, finger-picked blues guitar. It’s not showy with the extended solos that are usually found on blues albums. His playing is there to carry the melody, whether it’s slide or electric guitar or even banjo.
McNally is skilled, but restrained. Down Home is not about guitar. It’s about lyrics.
The band is similarly restrained. The best example of this is Brandon Isaak. Known for his rocking blues guitar with The Twisters, here he’s only heard on one song: the New Orleans jazz inspired Til the Break of Day, where he plays washboard.
It’s “Harmonica” George McConkey who provides this album’s flourishes. A true master of the blues harp, McConkey matches the mood and texture of every song he plays on.
On “Suitcase Packed” it sounds deep and throaty, exactly like McNally’s voice. On “Some Funny” it sounds exactly like an accordion.
On songs such as “Lie About Me” and “Heavy Mind” it sounds as if the harmonica is singing the verse.
But this album isn’t about the band, it’s about the songs. Mixing with old folk, jazz and bluegrass, McNally’s lyrics are down-to-earth folk-blues.
“Nothing in Her Pockets”, the opening track, has some beautiful imagery about a woman who has “nothing in her pockets, nothing but holes, nothing in her pockets, just a squeezebox on her shoulders. Her true love right by her side.”
I especially love the line, “She lost all her money down a wishing well.”
McNally does a wicked version of Holly Golightly’s “Devil Do”. It’s fast enough to be a rockabilly song, suitable for Sasquatch Prom Date. Instead, he plays it on banjo rather than electric guitar, making it sound a little bluegrass and singing in a deep, rough demonic voice.
His interpretation of the other covers is similarly unique, which is gratifying considering his choices.
Lead Belly’s “In the Pines”, known to Nirvana fans as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, could come across as clichéd, except that he changes the rhythm, shuffling through the melody with a syncopated beat, making it sound completely new.
He does the same with the traditional “Shady Grove”, avoiding Jerry Garcia for Waits in his Swordfishtrombone period.
Down Home captures the folk blues song from its lows to its highs, from the wilds of “Til the Break of Day” to the peace of the closing track, from the devils of “Devil Do” to the angels on “Everybody’s Blues” that “come to save my evil soul.”
McNally’s love of these songs shows in the care he takes to let them stand on their own, with just enough accompaniment to let them soar.