Release Date: Mar 26, 2013
I consider myself something of a Shawn McDonald “insider”. That is to say, I was “there” in the early days. It was probably early 2002, my business partner returned from a trip to Seattle with a CD-R labeled “Shawny Mac” featuring the music of a former drug-addict, acoustic-guitar-playing rapper. And it was good, in a really raw sense, for what it was.
Fast forward three years and I’m in an unfamiliar church. After the service I hear music over the PA that sounds familiar… Hey! Someone else knows Shawny Mac. Turns out he got a record deal and adopted the far more mature moniker of Shawn McDonald. That record, Simply Nothing, featured several of the songs I was familiar with but the presentation was a lot smoother. It was still raw, natural, intimate, and immediate – just better production.
Subsequent albums saw The Mac drop much of the rapping and turn to a more CCM sound complete with subdued instrumentation and mellower melodies. He lost me there.
This record, The Analog Sessions, purports itself as a collection of re-recordings of some of his most popular songs (and a couple of new ones) all recorded in analog on old retro gear. A fun premise, far better than the much despised “Greatest Hits”. [One must be careful not to set his hopes too high, however, for the once-great Bon Jovi attempted this a decade ago with disastrous results.]
On the whole, the album delivers. The production is fantastic. I didn’t find any definitive statement, but it sure feels as though the instrumentation was recorded live in studio. You can almost imagine the band looking at one another for cues and finding the groove together. In another sense, it feels as though someone just put a tape deck down in the middle of the room at band practice. In addition, the vocals sit really high in the mix which serves to elevate the lyrics – a welcomed change from recent recordings.
The bulk of the instrumentation is built around an acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and Rhodes keyboard which makes for a very Bill Withers type of sound, especially on the opening track “Eyes Forward.” Throughout the record, however, you hear some less expected instruments creep in: mandolin, accordion, even banjo. It may not seem like a big deal and they are all played expertly and mixed well, however, it seems to make the artist’s statement a little muddled. I came away not really knowing who he is. Because of the nature of the record, though, I’m going to give him a pass. Though not exactly a “vanity project”, this is a chance to experiment and play around.
The song selection is very curious to me. Of the 13 tracks, 2 are new (“What Are You Waiting For”, “Through it All”) – and they are excellent, 4 are from his fourth album Closer, 4 are from his first album Simply Nothing, 1 is from his third album Roots, and album number two, Ripen, is wholly unaccounted for. In case you’re wondering, the other two tracks are radio edits – oh, just you wait, we’ll address those in due time.
The four most recent songs remain largely unchanged and really just seem like acoustic versions of what was previously released. As is often the habit on these types of projects, the oldest songs – some of them at least a decade old – get the most reworking. While these don’t turn out bad, three of the four do seem a bit forced. The syncopated, bluegrassy beat of “Gravity” is a particularly poor choice. Perhaps the biggest win on the record is “Beautiful” that propels itself forward with simply piano, bass, and snare. My only minor complaint is that the vocal fails to reach the level of desperation that it showed on the original take.
Remember those radio edits I mentioned? This is what’s wrong with the record industry. “Oh, you want to put out a laid back, acoustic record? That’s cool. But people love drum loops and synthesizers. You do your hipster acoustic stuff, but we’re going to remix two of the songs, strip all the love out of the vocals, bury them in the mix, and then release those versions to radio.” The radio edit songs are the new songs and they probably will get decent radio play. They aren’t bad, but it’s just a terrible commentary on the industry.
In the end, the record is really solid. It allows great songs to take on a timeless quality that they may have been robbed of the first time out. I wish the older songs had stayed more intact, but I understand the need to do something different after playing them the same way for 10 years. I can only hope that the next studio effort will maintain the same type of momentum and not return to the sound that some guy in a suit has determined is “safe for the whole family.”