For many of us, myself included, this will be our introduction to Annie Keating, but it is in fact her sixth self-released CD. Originally from Boston, Keating relocated to New York in 1992 and is one of the thousands of excellent, if relatively undiscovered, singer-songwriters doing their troubadour thing, under the radar.
Any truly independent artist who has tried will tell you it’s not easy to make a really classy sounding Americana record. You need good songs, the finest musicians you can find and serious arrangement and production skill. You also need a recording budget that most self-releasing artists just don’t have. Make Believing is just such a record and is made all the more impressive when you learn that it was tracked in just three days with most of the basic parts recorded live.
Keating has a tight and very talented band and at its core are the players she has recorded and performed with for years. It therefore comes as no surprise that you can almost hear the chemistry and easy trust between them. First though, for the uninitiated, let’s focus on the lady herself. At her best, Annie Keating’s songs reach the delicate care-worn yearnings of heavyweights Kim Richey and Darden Smith. Her voice, bucking the trend of lush and over-reverbed, is a raw and untreated whisper, allowing the intimacy of the songs to really come to the fore. It would be something akin to Nanci Griffith, had she spent a few decades in a troubled, alcohol-heavy relationship with Johnny Cash.
Album opener ‘Coney Island’ is a sweet and catchy homage to New York’s infamous funland. It’s lifted, as is the whole record, by dustings of harmonica pep from Trina Hamlin. This track alone is enough to make any fan of the genre to sit up and take notice. It’s followed by the swaggering waltz that is ‘Sunny Dirt Road’, countryfied with some textbook fiddle from James Abrams. The rootsy shuffle of ‘I Want To Believe’ is nicely done, if forgettably generic, but when a track like ‘Foxes’ lays its magic on you, things really start to get a bit special. The close vocal, tremolo guitar, mellotron and pedal steel all come together perfectly to transform an already neat, understated song into a thing of pure recorded beauty. It’s the standout song for me.
The album continues to check the Americana boxes from the summery bounce of ‘Sink Or Swim’ to the excellent, poignant ‘Just Up Ahead’ through the hit-worthy clapalong ‘Know How To Fall’, before eventually falling foul of one country cliché too many in the over-earnest hoedown of ‘One Good Morning’. It’s a minor blip: next up, the Indigo Girls-flavoured ‘Lost Girls’ rises up and wins you over again with its sultry brooding; hotly followed by the tender ‘Still Broken’, a song that would have bought the album to a perfect, downbeat close had an acoustic version of ‘Know How To Fall’ (oddly under a different title) not been added to the end of the disc.
Quibbles aside, this is clearly an album that’s been assembled with great care, love & attention to detail. Keating’s collaborator Jason Mercer, a name many of you may know from his time with Ani DiFranco, among others, is both producer and bassist here and he’s really excelled and done the songs proud. Credit also has to go to Chris Tarrow whose deft guitar and pedal steel work sits perfectly alongside flawless drumming from Chris Benelli to create the organic feel that sets this release apart from so many others. Make Believing was completed thanks to funding from a Pledge Music campaign, which shows there are plenty of people out there who already know and love Annie Keating – maybe now it’s time you added your name to the list…
Release Date - January 12, 2015.
Review by Rich Barnard