05.09.2009

Red Balloon, Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:11 pm

This past week and a half or so, I’ve been listening again to an album by Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb’s wife. Her latest, entitled Red Balloon, is my favorite of her seven albums, and the best in my opinion (which I recently relayed to her, although sadly I didn’t get a response).

In order to make some of the comments I’d like to make about this CD, I have to go back a bit and mention a few things about her last few albums. (If you’d like to follow along you can see her discography here.) She’s always had a folk/acoustic/singer-songwriter sound, with some country flavoring, and apart from her third release (Best Laid Plans) her music has always fallen on the underproduced side, opting for real-life simplicity and grit instead of slick production. However, following Derek Webb who used the technique beginning with his album Mockingbird in 2005, on her next few albums (The Builder and the Architect and Gravity | Love, as well as Ampersand EP with Webb) she adopted what I tend to think of as a “tired” sound. Most of the instruments and vocals on those albums were recorded in her home as opposed to a studio, and so have a very unproduced, almost grainy sound to them. (This sound, though, is intentional, it’s not due to a lack of quality recording or production.) The songs were generally slow or mid tempo, without too much energy or quick movement. The main aspect of the “tired” sound, though, was a technique of recording the main vocal track twice, that is, singing and recording it once, and then singing and recording it a second time without changing the first one. The slight differences in intonation, different timings for final consonants (e.g. the “t” sound at the end of a word being heard twice, one a little after the other), and lack of polishing on the vocal production leads to a sound that is very original (in my experience). It’s almost like an in-tune, good-song version of the Juno sound”, in a way. But it’s still not a sound that I particularly enjoy, or at least it’s not one that I could listen to all the time.

Which is why I love Red Balloon, which was released last September and produced by McCracken, Webb, and often-collaborator Cason Cooley (whom I recently wrote about on TLB). It keeps the best aspects of the “tired” sound–the house-recorded feel, the cool drum sounds, some effective use of the vocal doubling–without the tiresome aspects, like the lack of variation in tempo, the lack of energy and too much use of the doubling. Guitar and piano (both of which Sandra plays) freely trade primary importance, and the drums and percussion sound really good and have some really cool grooves (listen, for example, to the sweet percussion on the sixth track, “On The Outside,” and the drums on “Halfway,” track seven).

I also enjoy the lyrics quite a bit. Red Balloon was her first solo studio album released after the birth of her first child, and most of the record is about the emotions and experiences that that brought with it. (I especially love the opening lyrics to the second song, “Storehouse”: “The first uninterrupted sleep since July / The first waves of wisdom swing like a wrecking ball / A child takes the throne / Displacing us all / In good time, just in time…”). McCracken is not as brilliant a lyricist as Webb, but she’s got skills and the lyrics on this album are particularly emotional and evocative.

I only have two problems with this album. The first is that her promotional email touted it as including “ten previously unreleased songs.” Technically that’s true, but the last song, “The High Countries,” was previously released by Caedmon’s Call on their album Back Home, and so I didn’t get the ten brand-new songs that I was hoping for. Even though it’s a different recording, calling it a “previously unreleased song” is a bit of a stretch. And that’s really the only song I’m not a big fan of on Red Balloon–I think the Caedmon’s version is better. The other problem I had was that it came “in a special two-disk package.” The entire album consists of ten songs, of normal song length (between three and five minutes); but it arrived as two CDs, labeled “Side A” and “Side B,” each containing five songs. Kind of a cool idea in theory, and listening to the songs there’s definitely a coherent feel to each of the halves by themselves; but practically, that’s just annoying. The first thing I did when I got the album was to burn all the songs onto a single CD.

But those are my only beefs. This is a great album and I’ve listened to it a lot without growing tired of it. The songwriting is great (especially when you know the back story about her son being born), the sound is original, and it’s inspiring to those of us who are aspiring independent songwriters ourselves.

You can find Red Balloon on iTunes and Amazon, as well as at the Sandra McCracken Official Online Shop. If you’d like a test drive first, you can hear four tracks from the album (“Guardian,” “Lock and Key,” “On the Outside” and “Big Blue Sky”) on Sandra McCracken’s Myspace page. You can see video of Sandra and Derek performing “Halfway” and “Lose You” at a recent house show by clicking on the links; and on that same page you can read Sandra’s account of the recording of the album.

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