For his sophomore effort, local punk-turned-country musician Brian McGee dropped the Hollow Speed, traded fiddles and banjos for organs and pedal steel and settled in at Echo Mountain Recording, emerging with 12 songs that exist — musically, lyrically and sonically — in a whole other realm than his self-titled debut.
The Taking or the Leaving is still an alt-country record, but McGee’s inner punk no longer sounds conflicted alongside jangly country twang, and he instead walks the line with confidence and ease, having settled into a brand of Americana that resides somewhere between Lucero and Bruce Springsteen. Bouncy tracks like “Diving Horses,” “First Kiss” and the Buddy Holly-ish album opener “Hold Sway” are rockabilly for the heartland: anthemic, bluesy pop-rock with a gritty optimism and unflagging urgency. But that side of McGee is tempered with dark, twangy ballads like “Let’s Bleed,” “The Great Unknown” and “When My Time Comes,” which highlight his talent for writing bleak narratives that rest almost solely on vocals and raw emotion.
This time around, McGee’s rough, howling voice is stronger than ever, especially alongside female guest vocalists like Ménage’s Mary Ellen Bush and The Honeycutters’ Amanda Platt, and the album’s production is warm and clean, accommodating a wide pallete of instrumentation that ranges from soaring pedal steel to accents of bright and delicate glockenspiel. It’s a cohesive, yet eclectic journey through homegrown American music of the last half-century, and the realization of where Brian McGee was headed all along.