By Pete McGann
After two albums of largely bass and vocal music, singer-songwriter Pete McGann has drafted in a full band for third album 'The Illusionist And Other Stories,' although there's still a fair helping of guitar-and-voice material too, for fans of his earlier work.
'The Illusionist and Other Stories' kicks off with the sparkling acoustic ballad 'Starting Out.' Its crystal-clear guitar picking provides an effective counterpoint to McGann's casually soulful vocals, and the contrast gives 'Starting Out' just enough character to prevent it from being just another pleasant but passable acoustic ballad.
On 'Good For Me,' Pete McGann changes tract, treading a more bluesy path. At several points throughout the album, McGann does make an effort to shake things up, often with the aforementioned full band accompaniment. It's a wise move, as few singer-songwriters can make an entire album's worth of acoustic guitar music interesting. On 'Good For Me,' he may not put quite enough energy into his vocals, but the percussion more than compensates for this, giving 'Good For Me' that sassy spring in its step, needed for that authentic, jazz sound.
'Good For Me' alternates between a classy, old school guitar whine with plenty of rough-and-ready crackle, and an invigorating chord-flutter that puts a real spark into the song. It's a welcome change of pace, and the same can be said for the upbeat 'There but for the grace of God go I.' Springy acoustic guitar, rollicking drumbeats and pop-infused vocals make 'There but for the grace...' a breath of bright and breezy folk-pop that'll have you tapping your feet.
'Billy Liar' is another song that eschews the traditional, one-man-and-his guitar feel of most singer-songwriter albums. It has one irresistible hook, as McGann's cry of "Billy!" earns him a sharp "Billy!" ricochet from a throng of backing vocalists. A backdrop of twitching chords, makes this interplay between the main and backing vocals even edgier. Loose, Caribbean rhythms and a funky, reggae-inspired vibe complete the picture, and make 'Billy Liar' a definite album highlight.
A handful of songs that place an emphasis on storytelling, also give 'The Illusionist And Other Stories' an edge. 'The Illusionist,' 'She Wants His Love' and 'Strange Child' all hook the listener's attention with a strong central narrative, which ensures these three songs will have your full attention, for at least the first listen. 'The Illusionist' is the song with the strongest storytelling ethos, describing, in detail, a magicians's performance. Despite a few awkward lines, the novelty of the subject matter and the narrative structure, will have you riveted. In terms of music, it boasts one sharp hook, as twangy guitar lines of contrasting pitches trade off one another but, beyond that, it's business as usual. You can't help but feel McGann has missed a trick, by not tailoring the music to emphasise either the sense of wonder surrounding the performance, or to bring more sinister shades to the tale.
Story is also important to 'She Wants His Love,' although to a lesser extent than 'The Illusionist.' The first listen will have you hanging on to discover what happens at the end, and its loose, jazzy swing, funky drums and perfectly-placed, chiming chords, may just have you coming back for more.
The last in the storytelling trio, 'Strange Child' has a rawer sound than much of this album, with a scattering of whining slide-guitar emphasising its under-produced feel. The vocal rhythms are more forceful than on other songs, giving 'Strange Child' that final boost to force its way into your attentions, and make this one of the songs you'll remember from 'The Illusionist And Other Stories.'
However, one major drawback to this album are the backing vocals. While they do give 'The Illusionist And Other Stories' its own identity, and work well on a handful of songs, the majority of the time they feel twice as powerful as the songs they're supposed to be enhancing. You may just do a double-take every time those multi-layered, choir-like backing vocals blare out of your speakers. The songs where they cause the most problems, are 'Don't Think About Tomorrow,' 'It's Just About You,' 'I'll Know' and 'Columbine.'
The first half of 'Don't Think About Tomorrow' features a very neatly put-together backing rhythm of glassy guitar picking, with the occasional bit of slide guitar contributing a hooky edge. Even the second half of snappy beats and throbbing bass works, bringing 'Don't Think About Tomorrow' to a groovy conclusion. But, then there's the backing vocals. Their soulful "oooooh-ooooooh" crooning is plain cheesy, and their jazzy chants of "don't think about tomorrow / don't think about tomorrow" are irritatingly slick.
In the same vein, 'It's Just About You' is great; an infectiously upbeat love song that shimmies along to an enthusiastically strummed guitar, underpinned by cheerful keys, and drumbeats that are guaranteed to get you tapping your feet. However, whenever the falsetto-edged backing vocals blast out of your speakers, they temporarily overpower everything that's good about this song.
'I'll Know' starts off as a strong song where McGann favours relaxing, meandering acoustic rhythms over his usual sharp and sparkling chords. However, the backing vocals are once again too strong and choir-like for the song, and their strong presence in the song's second half, prevents it from reaching the highs of the first.
'Columbine,' is arguably the weakest song on the album. A song about the infamous school shooting of 1999, seems especially odd, as surely everything that can be said about these events has already been said. And the oddness continues, as 'Columbine' plays out in the same vein as much of this album; acoustic guitars, lively drumbeats and more of those dodgy "ooooh-oooooh" backing vocals. It doesn't fit the subject matter, and those backing vocals feel particularly odd, given what this song is actually about. 'Columbine' will leave you scratching your head.
At the other end of the scale, 'You're The One' is the strongest song. It gets the balance spot-on between an opening half of gently chiming guitars and introspective vocals; and a second half that ups the tempo without destroying the mood McGann has taken such care to create. The second half's softly pattering percussion gives the song that final thrust, while starburst chords keep things delicate and sparkling. 'You're The One' is a rare example of an acoustic ballad that shakes things up for the finale, without ending up sounding like a completely different song.
The dourly atmospheric 'Soundtrack To My Life' marks a complete change of vibe for McGann. A few downhearted chords are looped to form a plodding and changeless base, with flashes of warped, whistling electronica periodically lowering the tone. For once, the backing vocals make a positive contribution, as their echoing, orchestral rhythms emphasise 'Soundtrack To My Life's sense of loneliness, until the atmosphere becomes almost overpowering.
The same can be said of album-closer 'This,' as the "oooooh-ahhhh" backing vocals bring a sense of drama and amassing energy to the choruses, which are in interesting contrast to the sparser verses. The verses ricochet fluttering chords off McGann's stylishly-timed vocals. It's an innovative and hook-packed end to the album, where even those hit-and-miss backing vocals are spot on.
'The Illusionist And Other Stories' has a few neat tricks up its sleeve, with a penchant for storytelling and the occasional, jazzy flourish, in the form of album highlights 'Billy Liar' and 'Good For Me.' There's also a handful of strong, traditional acoustic-based songs, in particular 'You're The One,' which is well worth tracking down. The backing vocals may be a deal breaker on some songs, but when they work, they give 'The Illusionist And Other Stories' a distinctive and edgy sound. A little more hit-and-miss than most singer-songwriter albums, this is balanced out by a few great, standout tracks.