Hey La Hey

Michael McDermott

Pauper Sky Records, 2009

http://www.michael-mcdermott.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/13/2009

Stephen King -- he of the Rock Bottom Remainders and New York Times bestseller list -- has called Chicago singer-songwriter Michael McDermott “probably the greatest undiscovered rock and roll talent of the last 20 years.” 

The only logical response to this sort of assertion is to cast a pitying glance in the general direction of the artist in question, offer a knowing nod and mouth a sympathetically sardonic “No pressure.”

In this case, however, no sympathy for the object of the famous big shot’s over-the-top praise is necessary -- because on his eighth solo album, not only does Michael McDermott exhibit no signs of feeling pressure, at times he actually threatens to put the truth to King’s words.

Early-90s Capitol signee McDermott has long since gone independent, and it’s easy to see why.  For while he shows plenty of melodic smarts, his dusky, folk-infused rock is simply too intelligent and literate for the average A&R guy -- not to mention mallrat music buyer -- to get his head around.  McDermott’s music is something out of time, beautifully cinematic Americana that’s informed more by songwriting demi-gods like Dylan and Waits and Springsteen than anything resembling modern pop. 

Hey La Hey opens with the steady strum of an acoustic guitar topping a gentle country-rock beat as McDermott pours out his melancholy over a relationship teetering on the edge of dissolution.  “So Am I” is the story of two lonely people on the run from life, love and each other, all the while sharing an indelible bond that won’t allow them to let go of one another.  Hearing the rough-hewn humanity of McDermott’s expressive voice for the first time, it’s a challenge to describe it as anything but Springsteenesque -- but that’s likely true also because McDermott, like Bruce, sings every word of these songs like he means it.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This makes the decision all the stranger when McDermott chooses to step back from the foreground and offer guest vocalist Kate York the lead vocal for the second cut here, the darkly poetic “Hard To Break.”  Make no mistake, York has a wonderful voice with a touch of Emmylou Harris’ breathy vibrato; it’s just a startling choice to place this one early in the tracklist.  The impression that this is a significant misstep is only reinforced when the Steve Earle-ish honky-tonk of “I Wanna Know Why” kicks in and McDermott’s range becomes fully apparent.

From there, the songs just get more and more impressive.  “The Great American Novel” and “The Year It All Went Wrong” are two of the most entertaining and well-crafted songs you’ll hear all year.  The former is a classic character study of a manic wannabe artiste with big dreams, big drama and no follow-through.  Employing wonderfully detailed little character bits, McDermott manages to make this figure tragic, romantic, and in the end, comedic as well.  “The Year It All Went Wrong” is a travelogue of hard luck that’s so expertly written and entertainingly rhymed that you don’t want it to end.

In between, a glimpse inside “Room 411” at a Tennessee motel finds road-weary troubadour McDermott sitting alone with his acoustic, singing of the woman he’s followed halfway across the country, only to miss her yet again.  And then “Hey La Hey” takes you back to the source of all the trouble and heartache McDermott has been singing about, presenting a character study of the woman he’s falling in love with, complete with every contradiction and complicated piece of baggage that makes her who she is.  (Another neat touch McDermott employs is to drop the phrase “hey la hey” -- meaningless but always evocative in context -- into four or five different songs here, tying the whole album together with a single lyrical motif.)

“Dream Came True” opens with a string of world-class rhymes destined to make a word-geek like me grin, decorating a tune with a sort of gently epic falling-for-a-girl feel.  “The Ballad Of Johnny Diversey” is where McDermott really gets his early Springsteen on with a dense, winding fable about Louie and Freddy and the Duke and Johnny and Diamond Jim, a gaggle of small-town scufflers learning the hard way.  And closer “Carry Your Cross” finishes things out with a gorgeous, haunting love ballad, a genuinely sad song of devotion.

McDermott’s sterling songwriting and heartfelt vocals are enough to make this album special on their own.  What really takes it to the next level is the craftsmanship McDermott has applied in constructing a thematically cohesive album that seems at different times to be about attraction or desperation, passion or loneliness, devotion or running away -- until you realize it’s about all of these things at once, all the different facets of falling in love and losing control, all the way through from the first track to the last.

Hey La Hey is a superb piece of work from a top-notch singer-songwriter who, all authorly hyperbole aside, surely deserves a whole lot more attention than he’s received to date.

Rating: A-

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© 2009 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Pauper Sky Records, and is used for informational purposes only.