Friday, May 5, 2017

Humphrey/McKeown - Tapestry of Shadows (2017)


Written by David Shouse

There aren’t as many active songwriting duos consistently working today. Scanning the major genres reveals that the last lingering bastion of such an approach, a remnant of the Brill Building’s influence on popular song, exists in various forms of Americana songwriting. One of the best songwriting partnerships working in the Americana style today is, without question, Heather Humphrey and Tom McKeown’s longstanding collaboration. The two began working together in the early years of this young century and soon realized that, rather than peddling their collaborative efforts to various performers, they would better serve their own dreams and desires by recording and performing their material together. The duo, five albums later, have conclusively proven their instinct to be correct. Their latest release Tapestry of Shadows continues the ongoing process for the duo and finds them now evolving into a full band sound that sounds completely organic rather than seeming more like a mere vehicle for their songwriting. These are songs and arrangements that stand up nicely on their respective feet.

“Beautiful” brings things off with a memorable start. It has a solidly Americana base, but there are a number of structural points in the song that are pure pop. These moments, however, are never handled cheaply. Humphrey/McKeown do an excellent job of weaving the traditional elements of their sound in with this more modern feel. There’s a bit of a bluesy downcast to the second song “Better Day” but, like the opener, it embraces the sound of adult oriented popular song in a way that makes its traditional sound unusually fresh. The slinky, slightly behind the beat tempo of the song gives it an additional allure. McKeown’s vocals come out much more on the song “You Don’t Know Me”. They are name-checking, perhaps indirectly, a pop standard with their own stylish track, a dark jazzy glide with a fluid bass line and seamless changes that might seem a little predictable, but in the most pleasing and inevitable of ways. “Sasha on the Carousel” is another of the album’s more memorable tunes thanks, in no small part, to its melodic strengths – particularly the chorus. The songwriters’ voices come together very nicely on this song and there’s a reflective quality in the lyrics that matches the arrangement quite well.

The violin playing adds a third voice to the mix on “Our Beautiful Sad Dance” and it is the chief melodic vehicle in an otherwise lean musical narrative whose simplicity works beautifully. “You and I” has an almost hypnotic intensity centered on some rather simple melodic phrases and an intense vocal duet between McKeown and Humphrey.  “Madness” and “Sunshine Today” end the album with a distinctive character. The former is a lyrically inventive and has the steady stride listeners might associate with folk rock rather than outright Americana. “Sunshine Today” is bright and buoyant in a way few songs on Tapestry of Shadows can match, but it’s comparatively upbeat demeanor doesn’t sound out of place and brings the twelve song album to a close on a thankfully upbeat note.  

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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