Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Meg Hutchinson - The Living Side


Meg Hutchinson records for Red House records. Based on what I have heard from that label before, I thought this album would make a nice segue from Americana week. It didn’t work out that way. But it does make a nice lead-in to a week of music that doesn’t fit any musical genre. Welcome.

If there is no label that conveniently describes the music of Meg Hutchinson, how shall I proceed? Well, have you ever participated in a guided meditation? There is a leader, who speaks softly, describing in broad strokes a scene and a sequence of events, leaving many blanks for the participants to fill in, each in their own way. The participants are lying down with their eyes closed, breathing slowly and evenly, taking this in and each making their own journey of it. On The Living Side, Hutchinson takes us on quite a journey.

Let me hasten to add that this is not new age music by any stretch. There is great substance to both the words and the music here. And they are both finely crafted. But this music is very delicate and hushed. To take us on that journey, Hutchinson cannot startle or jar us. She must manage the trick of varying the feel and texture of the music, while not breaking our trance. And for those who wish to listen without traveling, Hutchinson must also make music that rewards close listening. She does.

Most of the songs feature acoustic guitar, bass, an electric keyboard, and often drum sequences. Sometimes there is also electric guitar, and a string quartet is used here in a way I have never heard before; the bows across the strings sound like breathing. Likewise, an accordion shows up sometimes, again as I have never heard it used before; it plays single chord drones that sound like something out of Eastern music. Hutchinson adds her low and intimate alto parts, and her background vocal parts are done as overdubs, often recorded differently than the lead vocals. I don’t know the technical aspects of this, but this contrast between the lead and background vocals gives this music a wonderful otherworldly effect.

The songs on The Living Side are mostly about love and faith, both in one’s self and each other. But there are turns of phrase that take the songs to unexpected places. Hopeful Things begins, “When I drink whiskey, sometimes I do things I don’t regret.” Now, Hutchinson has our attention for a song of hope. The chorus recalls an incident from a little while ago, where an airline pilot, facing a crash landing, was able to put the plane down in the Hudson River; it was considered a crash, but all on board walked away from it. The song, though, is more personal, talking about hope in a relationship.

Gatekeeper shows another side of Hutchinson’s gift. This song conveys a wonderful quiet intimacy. And Hutchinson can evoke a place or a scene in a single line. Hard to Change has a line about, “Driving south from New York City…toward the strange glow of the factories…” I live in New Jersey, and I know exactly what and where she means. Travel In has a more extended description of the Great Lakes region, and I’m sure it’s just as accurate.

So that’s what I hear when I listen to The Living Side. As happens with guided meditations, you may hear something quite different. If that happens, I hope you will share it in the comments. And I look forward to the chance to take more journeys with Meg Hutchinson in the future.

Meg Hutchinson: Gatekeeper

Meg Hutchinson: Hopeful Things