AcousticMusicSan-Diego, Saturday, November 17, 7:30 p.m. 619-303-8176. $18 or $22.
I thought Sing You Sinners was a fearless gesture, given Erin McKeown's catalog of funky, hip-hoppy (and sometimes countrified) folk/punk/swing. She belongs to that musical no-fit genre in which folk has been included for so long now that hardly anybody notices anymore except for the critics who have a need to categorize such things. Sinners is a departure, a compilation of covers of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway gold from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, the kind of material done by artists such as Rosemary Clooney or Judy Garland. I like it not because I have an affinity for that generation but because McKeown hasn't the chops to do the material -- and yet she pulls it off.
McKeown's a Virginian, barely 30, and claims not to have grown up a sycophant of pop culture. She's an ethnomusicologist, has a bachelor's degree in it. This detail is offered as background, not as an apology for her creations that become more elaborate as time passes. At her best, McKeown is a student of personalities: "I don't say it I imply it/ I'm the queen of quiet/ What kind of lover am I?" She illuminates character types that you know, or feel as though you know, or know and wish you didn't. "Every time she sees a movie," McKeown sings, "she thinks it's about her. Every time she hears a song, she thinks it's about them."
I like the rich possibilities in McKeown's voice and the true punk tradition in which she declines to exploit them. She keeps her singing just left of center and reveals her protagonists in song by putting them into delicious situations that beg resolution: "You know my secret/ Somebody told you, didn't they?/ I can tell by your voice/ And in the way we are awkward." McKeown is bigger than a singer/songwriter. She is a novelist with a guitar.
ERIN McKEOWN, AcousticMusicSan-Diego, Saturday, November 17, 7:30 p.m. 619-303-8176. $18 or $22.