Dancing The Strings

El McMeen

Piney Ridge Music, 2004


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Anyone who has followed this site for any length of time knows that I've been singing the praises of fingerstyle guitarist El McMeen since I discovered his work courtesy of a compilation disc released by Rounder. Thanks to my review of those two discs, El and I have struck up a friendship which has helped to turn me on to other guitarists of similar quality.

In all journalistic fairness, I probably shouldn't be the one reviewing El's music, since I do consider him a friend. Then again, sometimes I feel that this gives me more of an insight into what he tries to do with his music, and I sometimes feel like I can be more critical than normal, since it's leveled with an equal dose of respect.

That all said, I can't say anything negative about his latest effort, Dancing The Strings. A mixture of more modern songs and traditional Celtic workings, McMeen shows why he is one of the best guitarists out there, amplification and flash be damned.

Admittedly, I do prefer the more traditional Celtic numbers -- but maybe that's because that's what I was first exposed to with El's music. Yet I can't find any flaws in his choices of covers on this particular disc; of the 14 tracks, there is not a single one which is a letdown. I learned some time ago that McMeen can take a song like "Danny Boy" which has been beaten to death by so many average versions and breathe new life into it with his gentle style on the acoustic guitar. On my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Dancing The Strings, he performs a Frankenstein maneuver on "The Tennessee Waltz," taking an old chestnut and lovingly giving it a new lease on life while respecting the song's history.

The same can be said for his takes on such Sixties hallmarks as "Tears Of A Clown" (even if the acoustic guitar can't quite imitate the calliope-like opening of the original), "There Is A Rose In Spanish Harlem" and "Working My Way Back To You." Even if you grew up listening to the original versions of these songs, you can't help but be awed by McMeen's performances.

Even a forgotten guilty pleasure like Orleans's "Still The One" gets the respectful treatment by McMeen, literally giving this track a new perspective for a generation who may not know the original.

I said earlier that I happened to prefer it when McMeen played the more traditional music -- and this does not get shorted on Dancing The Strings. I defy anyone to try to keep from dancing a jig when they hear tracks like "The Humors Of Ballyloughlin" or "The Kid On The Mountain" -- yes, kids, the performances are that good. Likewise, McMeen knows when to turn the volume down and the intensity up on quieter numbers like "The Lovers' Waltz" and "Midnight On The Water."

The highlight for me, though, is McMeen's take on "America The Beautiful" -- which I honestly wish he had recorded and released just after the events of 9/11. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but McMeen's performance of this patriotic standard almost seems like a dirge for those whom we've lost far too soon, be it from terrorism or from the resulting skirmishes across the globe. Yet in that mourning, McMeen conveys a new respect for the feeling of national pride one feels - and, again, takes an old, tired number and transcends it into something special.

It seems like every time I talk to El of late, he seems to speak of slowing his pace down, even if it means retiring from the studio. Yet each disc he releases is a wonderful surprise, and the talk of slowing down starts up again. I know for fact that El reads these pages from time to time, so I hope he takes my humble advice and keeps on releasing discs like Dancing The Strings. After all, the more he has out there, the more proof there is that he's a treasure waiting to be discovered by the multitude. Here's hoping that discovery comes very soon.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2004 Christopher Thelen 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 Piney Ridge Music, and is used for informational purposes only.