With a louche saunter and a thick, descending ripple of horn punctuations, Erin McKeown opens her first self-released album with a high-ironic colonic that skewers double-dealing public servants with their flaccid protest “If nobody knows, tell me what’s the crime?” Brazen, thick cocktail jazz, “The Politician” declares protest music doesn’t have to be strident, acoustic or boring. Instead, the Massachusetts-based singer/songwriter delivers a supremely listenable record that employs gorgeous melodies, intriguing rhythmic structures, and arrangements that are brilliantly alive—yet never for the sake of how “awesome” the production sounds. Manifestra is a smart record even before the lyrics are considered.
Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Erin McKeown has spent the majority of her career running genres through the shredder, taping them back together and then sending them back through for another haircut. The politically charged Manifestra, which according to its author "describes a statement of purpose and unity, a clear action from a female perspective, a bright hope," begins appropriately with “Politician,” a bluesy, Stax-meets-Sub Pop takedown of public officials who utilize religion in lieu of band aids in the face of a scandal. The propulsive, atmospheric "In God We Trust" mines similar thematic territory, but swaps out the blues with smoky, sub-tropical jazz-pop, while the intoxicating single "Jailer" and the appropriately fiery, lurching title cut fall somewhere in the middle, sounding for all the world like a random spin of the radio dial that lands just left of Suzanne Vega and just right of Los Lobos.
It’s hard to figure how pop music could get much more varied and intriguing than the work being done by American women these days. The soul and bubble-gum divas who rule the airwaves have perfected a certain kind of riveting, ear-worm immediacy, country singers like Shelby Lynne are telling incredible stories, and the more “artsy” singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple made 2012 a banner year for super-smart and self-conscious music that jams together traditions from Joni Mitchell to Radiohead in incredible ways. Manifestra is the latest album in the latter tradition—a brilliant and imaginative album from Erin McKeown that won’t produce any hits but that gives you faith in how pop music can be both high art and great fun at the same time.
Just about every note and lyric on Erin McKeown’s “Manifestra’’ is a step away from the norm. Yet the songs are so beguiling you can’t help but follow. Critiques of the status quo open and close the album, with “The Politician” being a broad sketch of dubious character, and “Baghdad to the Bayou” a broadside against war and corporate greed that draws its strength in a chorus of voices.