The jangly urgency in the opening notes of The Taking or the Leaving says it all. This is a new Brian McGee: louder, faster and better than ever.
“I really wanted to make a record that was going to take a step forward sound-wise, and I wanted things to get a little louder,” he says of the sonic evolution. “I wanted it to be less alt-country and less Americana-feeling than the last one. That is not exactly the place where I thrive.”
But McGee does thrive on The Taking or the Leaving, settling into a sound somewhere between Buddy Holly and Bruce Springsteen; early blues-infused rock ‘n roll tempered with poppy blue-collar Americana. Up-tempo tracks like “Diving Horses,” “First Kiss,” “Walking Back to Love” and the album opener “Hold Sway” feature driving percussion and an electrified vigor that stand in drastic contrast to the old-timey feel of McGee’s self-titled debut.
However, for fans of his early work, the lonesome harmonies and narrative storylines of “Here I Am,” “Let’s Bleed” and “Cortona” prove McGee still has twang, only this time it’s an altogether different kind — emanating from pedal steel and Hammond organ, rather than fiddle and banjo. His voice remains rough and coarse, but it’s stronger and more commanding this time around. Listening to the record there is the clear sense that Brian McGee has hit his stride.
“A lot of the shows that I’ve been going to have been more rock and indie-rock shows, and I’ve been absorbing that stuff,” he explains. “So I guess in my mind I wanted to make a record that could draw in some of those listeners too. Instead of just being the alt-country guy with a guitar and harmonica, I wanted to be like, ‘I’m interested in that stuff, maybe you’ll be interested in this stuff.’”
The production, too, is a step above McGee’s past endeavors. He spent weeks with co-producer Pete James tweaking songs, developing sounds and working out a clear overall vision for The Taking or the Leaving before ever stepping foot in the studio, allowing them to track the entire record in three days at Echo Mountain. The result is warm and clean with an unmistakable professionalism. But McGee says he was also conscious of maintaining the edge that has been a hallmark of his sound.
“I feel like it’s still pretty raw in some of the guitar tones and the singing,” he notes. “But when I listen to the first one, I feel like some of it sounds awkwardly raw. And there’s something to be said for that; there’s a certain amount of honesty to it. But I was playing it for someone the other day and I was like, ‘Uh, yeah. It’s raw. Like maybe I should have practiced a little more raw or done another take raw.’
“I went into Echo thinking, ‘I’m going to drop a bunch of money here, but this studio is amazing. And if this is the last one I ever make at least I went in and had the experience of having it sound as best as I possibly could make it. I think it’s a big step up from the last one in production.”
His sound wasn’t the only thing that evolved during the making of The Taking or the Leaving though. Originally known as Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed, a string of lineup changes, mispronunciations and questions about meaning led McGee to drop the Hollow Speed moniker for the sake of clarity and simplicity. All things considered, it “just got awkward” he says. “Now it’s just going to be my name, and if there’s a band, there’s a band, and if it’s solo, it’s solo.”
With the new record on the verge of official release McGee is focused on cementing the lineup, which he admits is still “a little wonky.” Guitarist Pete James stays busy with his own full-time project, the Honeycutters, and drummer Kevin Rumley was recently replaced with Ice Cream’s Evan Martin. Only bassist Mary Ellen Bush remains from the recording, but the changes have allowed McGee to do so some experimenting.
“I might take advantage of this opportunity to add keys to the band,” he says. “And I’ve been thinking about playing more electric guitar and making the acoustic more of a thing to switch to for a couple of tunes.”
But whatever shape the band takes, you can rest assured that it will include McGee: louder, faster and better than ever.
— Dane Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Brian McGee, with John Howie Jr. and The Rosewood Bluff
what: CD-release show for The Taking or the Leaving
where: The LAB
when: Saturday, Oct. 23 (9 p.m. brianmcgeemusic.com and lexavebrew.com)