Album Review: Angie McMahon - Piano Salt EP
Earlier in the year, a number of months ago, though time now means very little to quite a few of the people I know, Angie McMahon released, seemingly out of context, a new version of her song “If You Call.”
Originally the closing track on her debut full length, Salt, which was issued, at this time, less than a year earlier, this updated recording replaced her pensive, acoustic strums with the electric guitar—complete with the hiss coming from her amp, and the microphones in the room not only picking up the sound coming from the amp, but the intimate sound of her pick hitting her strings; she’s accompanied by stirring, haunting harmony vocals from Leif Vollebekk, who also contributes a warm Wurlitzer arrangement, complimenting McMahon’s downcast, snarling guitar.
Once, just another ‘sad’ sounding song that I could listen to on my morning walks to work, eventually, I began to really focus on the song’s lyrics, and it became very, very apparent that “If You Call” could be something much larger than itself—I realized that it was a stark reflection of the time that we are currently living in, and through; but more importantly, and surprisingly, “If You Call” became a reflection of myself, and a reflection of what I was seeing happen to the people around me.
McMahon’s follow up to Salt, an EP dubbed Piano Salt, is, inherently, an exercise born out of isolation. Recorded during the early days of the pandemic lockdown/self-quarantining, it find her returning to her first instrument—the piano, and the effort deconstructs five of Salt’s tracks, stripping them down to surprisingly levels of sparsity, and at times, dramatically reimagining them, as well as two cover songs: Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die,” and “The River,” by Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band.
In press materials for Piano Salt, McMahon said the opportunity to reflect on her past with the piano allowed her to “shed some fear around sounding too cheesy on the piano or too sad—I realized that doesn’t mater so much because I just love to play and sing.”
Salt was, overall, a raucous affair, with McMahon’s songwriting and performing structured heavily around her ramshackle, at times ferocious guitar playing, and her otherworldly howling—vocals that could be incredibly tender, then suddenly dropping them into a low, guttural place that still, even after a year with the record, can surprise me when I hear it.
These reinterpretations of her material are not so much “shocking,” but initially, especially in the case of songs like the swirling “Soon,” or the humorous and feral “Slow Mover,” it does take a moment or two to get acclimated to their presentation here.
In the refrain, with the way her accent lands within her singing voice, it sounds like McMahon sings, “I’m gonna be bad for you,” in “If You Call.”
But in checking the lyric sheet that accompanies Salt, the lyric is actually, “I’m gonna be bright for you.” Which makes sense, since the lyric before it, that couples within the rhyme pattern is, “I’ll turn on the light for you.”
The version of “If You Call” featuring Vollebekk, which is, and let’s keep it funky, exponentially more powerful than the version that concludes Salt; and it was on an early morning walk, before the sun has even had the opportunity to rise, that I can remember the surreal feeling that came over me once the lyrics really started to resonate—though I am not sure how many times through, or how many early morning walks it took, for the depth to finally hit me.
If I pressed play on the song, on my phone, after locking the door to my house, it would be around the time I round the first corner, off of the street and onto a sidewalk, that McMahon’s husky voice comes in with the opening line: “I’m putting down the habit—the habit of looking back on all of it and wishing I had done better.”
She continues: “I just wanna feel it—feel that I like who I’m becoming and feel alright in the quiet.”
And I guess it’s that first line. The habit of looking back on all of it, and wishing I had done better.
And I guess it’s that second line. Feeling that I like who I’m becoming, and feeling alright in the quiet.
And I guess that was when the reflection of myself, and this life—the life that we all know now, because we know nothing else—began to quickly take shape.
McMahon’s ability to deconstruct and then rearrange, and in many cases, do so with a dramatic, emotional flair, is what makes listening to Piano Salt the cathartic experience it is. While the LP was built, somewhat, around the concept of ‘tension and release,’ with the emphasis primarily relying in the latter, this companion effort finds itself focused on creating a haunting, fragile, and gorgeous tension—forming within the spaces between McMahon’s voice, the way she commands the piano as an instrument and an extension of herself, and her honest songwriting.
The EP opens with a reinterpretation of “Soon,” originally a rollicking, almost dizzying and swooning song, based around enormous, theatrical strums of the electric guitar, and McMahon’s penchant for the ‘quiet/loud/quiet’ school of songwriting. Here, “Soon” still swirls, but the change in instrumentation casts a different light on it, making it much more emotionally evocative and stirring, with the piano working almost effortlessly to create a bittersweet, melancholic bed that churns beautifully underneath McMahon’s voice, which, by the time she arrives at the refrain, is completely unleashed—she lets it soar as far as it can go, belting out with reckless abandon, “I’d like to have real love some day; I’d like to get past this heartbreak—soon.”
As the song continues into its third verse, then turning into its refrain once again, McMahon builds things up as high as they will go, steering “Soon” toward a cacophonic peak that quickly, almost too quickly, resolves itself. She pulls everything back into a very insular, pensive conclusion.
It is tough to keep a sense of humor, whatever size, in music that is so inherently earnest or dramatic, but one of the more admirable qualities about McMahon’s debut is that it isn’t entirely serious all of the time—originally a bombastic, shuffling groove, “Slow Mover,” lyrically, is among her most cutting. It isn’t mean spirited, but it is brimming with romantic irritation, specifically in the way the intent of the refrain shifts throughout: beginning with the charming, “Could you make me fall asleep when you’re holding me? Try set me on fire, she sings the first time around. By the time it hits again, she’s soured: “Could you go on and fall asleep when you’re not holding me? Go get set on fire.”
Here, the inward turn, musically, for “Slow Mover” is among the most startling, with the rearrangement for the piano being perhaps the most drastic of the set. With the Salt version of “Slow Mover” structured around crisp percussion and enormous, distorted strums of the guitar, here, McMahon shows incredible restraint in the way the pacing is held; the way she deliberately lets her phrasing, almost spoken and whispered rather than sung, tumble on top of the pensive piano chords, sustaining them for just long enough to create the flicker of theatrical tension.
Accompanied by an additional track of backing vocals, as well as some minor, atmospheric guitar work that coasts through—more noticeable in the song’s second verse and refrain—the Piano Salt version of “Slow Mover” is, surprisingly, one of those songs that knocked the wind out of me because of one specific moment.
It’s in the song’s bridge section wherein McMahon utters the titular phrase: “Friend, I am a slow, slow mover,” she sings. “Friend, I am a slow, slow girl.” At around 2:45 into the song, the way she’s deliberately played with the space and tension in the way her words fall around the piano suddenly shifts, and the pacing of the song begins to quicken, and swirl around beautifully. But she only does it for just this moment—less than a minute of the song—and after the bridge is finished, and the song heads into its final refrain, she pulls it all back again, slowing things back down, playing with that somber restraint, allowing it to build slightly on the repetition of the line, “Try and set me on fire,” before it reaches the end.
Even with as much time as I have spent with “If You Call,” especially on my morning walks to work, early on during the course of the last seven months, perhaps it’s the way she sings, or perhaps its her accent, but I realize how many lyrics I’ve misheard.
At the beginning of the song’s second verse, I was certain it was an ‘and,’ but it is apparently a ‘than,’ which doesn’t change my interpretation of it, or what it means to me, specifically, that much. “I’ve been a little darker,” McMahon begins. “Than I’ve been wanting you to see,
though you’ve been coming ‘round needing to be looked after.”
Either way you look at it, for me, it’s about making space for another who is struggling, even if you, too, are struggling, and that you are both willing to not so much ‘embrace’ each other’s darkness, or emotional baggage, or whatever you want to call it—but you are willing to accept it, and try to help one another work through it as best as each of you are able to do.
Though, the line that comes after this changes the intent, slightly: “Well, I don’t have an answer.”
Because there are no easy answers, I guess, in matters like this—matters of darkness, and matters of needing someone to look after you, and sometimes that is what keeps someone from reaching out—because they know the other person can’t really solve their problem, and sometimes talking about whatever it is just too much, so it, like so many other things, is just left to be internalized, and buried down deep with everything else we are trying to hide.
Those who have followed McMahon’s career from its early stages, or even when she ‘broke’ in America last year with the release of Salt, are aware of her knack for absolutely nailing a cover song—sometimes attempting it more than once, with drastically different results. Most recently she recorded two very different versions of the Bonnie Taylor classic, “Total Eclipse of The Heart”—one with her band, and an undercurrent of dreamy atmospherics; the other, alone, with an electric guitar, breaking the song down to a place of sparse desperation.
She did something similar with the iconic Fleetwood Mac tune, “Silver Spring.”
McMahon’s dramatic, haunting take on Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” arrives as Piano Salt’s centerpiece, and, surprisingly, is seamlessly connected to its predecessor, a jaunty arrangement of “Keeping Time,” which creates a stunning, surprising moment on the EP’s first half when one song ends, and the sound of the piano strings (and possibly some synthesizer atmospherics) ringing out hasn’t even disappeared before she tumbles head first into the next.
“The River,” the titular track to Springsteen’s legendary double album from 1980, is bleak; and I feel like that is something, as it often can in Springsteen tunes, that gets lost in the bombastic arrangements of the E Street Band—which I realize is the point. The point is to create a reflection of the desolation and longing from the working class America Springsteen sees himself as part of, but to dress it up with enough pomp and accessible songwriting that it isn’t as depressing as it could be in the hands of someone else.
With all of that bombast and energy stripped away, McMahon focuses in hard on just how bleak that song is—her voice becoming visceral and otherworldly as she exposes the desolation and longing in “The River”’s narrative.
“The River” is one of Springsteen’s most autobiographical songs—at least from this early part of his career. The narrative, loosely based on his older sister and her husband, unfolds around an unnamed protagonist and a young woman named Mary, and like so many Springsteen songs, it becomes a story about the choices people make, the freedom people crave, the lust once held onto, and inherently, the loss of innocence, as Mary quickly becomes pregnant while just barely out of her teens.
McMahon’s arrangement obviously pulls away the blue collar troubadour earnestness of the original, but the innocence lost and the deponent longing for what was, and what could have been, are the focus. “Then I got Mary pregnant and that was all she wrote. For my 19th birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat,” she sings, her voice growing in intensity with each piece of the lyric, before scaling that intensity back, both as her fingers press down the piano keys, as well as with her voice, as the verse continues.
“We went down to the courthouse, and the judge put it all to rest—no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles; no flowers, no wedding dress.”
It is an interesting, and perhaps intentional choice, then, that the second cover included on Piano Salt, is a start juxtaposition, thematically, to the bleak domestic scene of “The River.”
A friend of mine recently described Lana Del Rey as a reflection of the culture of ‘sad white girls on Instagram,’ which is accurate, and as problematic1 of a figure as she’s become recently, she is still responsible for an incredible album (last year’s Norman Fucking Rockwell), and Del Rey, born Elizabeth Grant, becomes a case of trying to compartmentalize the art and the artist making it.
Pulled from Grant’s full length debut as Lana Del Rey, McMahon’s arrangement of “Born to Die” does away completely with the contrasted ‘torch song’ vocals and glitchy, slinky early 2010’s swooning production and structure, as well as the stoic restraint with which Grant sings in.
Replacing all of that is a very visceral, borderline desperate longing, as McMahon absolutely shreds her voice and bangs out the notes on the piano, building a slow burning sense of tension that grows to explosive levels as the song continues.
The thing about “Born to Die,” and a lot of Grant’s material as Lana Del Rey, is that it’s about a despondent kind of lust—or, at the very least, the place where love and lust blur together, and it becomes difficult to tell where one ends, where one begins, or which one you truthfully feel toward someone. So “Born to Die” is not a ‘love’ song, in the traditional sense, but it is a lusty dedication to the relationship Grant was in at the time she wrote it. That youthful, heady excitement that comes from possibly volatile relationship is gone, and in its place, is something very, very pensive and desolate, in terms of how it explores the connection between the protagonist and their partner.
Like “The River,” McMahon’s skeletal turn on “Born to Die” allows the flickers of darkness found in Grant’s lyrics to be moved to the forefront: “Don’t make me sad, don’t make me cry,” she howls before the refrain. “Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough—I don’t know why…The road is long, we carry on—try to have fun in the meantime.”
If I remember correctly, last summer, I was introduced to Angie McMahon through a relatively positive review of Salt on the website Consequence of Sound. In the review, there was a YouTube link to the video for the rollicking, relatively humorous, though somewhat serious “Pasta.” It’s not my favorite song on the record, but it was enough to send me in the direction of McMahon’s Bandcamp site, and the album’s opening track, “Play The Game,” hadn’t even finished yet and I had placed an order for the LP.
A reinterpretation of “Pasta” concludes Piano Salt; as expected, based on the tone the whole EP takes as it unfolds, this version doesn’t so much remove the self-effacing humor from the original album iteration, but it definitely downplays it, and instead, favors the theme from the mantra-like phrase McMahon repeats continually in the song: “I’ve been lost for a little while.”
At its core, “Pasta” is about the uncertainty, restlessness, and apathy that comes from being in your early to mid 20s. And while there there is still some surprising, albeit dark, humor in the song’s opening line: “My bedroom is a disaster/my dog has got kidney failure,” as well as the opening line to the song’s second verse, “And I spend so much time eating pasta. Although I’m probably allergic and other people seem to move so much faster,” the shift goes from the initial surprise of those seemingly tossed off asides, and into the depth of that uncertainty and restlessness.
You can specifically hear that loud and clear in that aforementioned, repeated phrase, which here, sounds slightly more like a cry for help; you can also hear it in the way that McMahon rushes through some of the song’s other pensive lyrics, like “I wonder why I’m feeling lonely,” and the seemingly wounded caterwauling she unabashedly careens into in “Pasta”’s final verse, on the line, “Can anybody climb aboard this structure I have made—to wrap myself around a promise that there is room?”
“Pasta” brings Piano Salt to a somewhat sudden conclusion, but it is the song that, even as McMahon works it into a dizzying, manic build that quickly descends towards a quick resolve, has the most energy, or at least the most discernible exuberance left in it, making it a slightly surprising choice, but a fitting one never the less, to end this collection on.
In advance of Piano Salt, following the release of “If You Call” as a single, McMahon began sharing videos online of her performing a number of these songs, including “The River,” “Born to Die,” and “Soon.” These videos were, as expected, jaw dropping2 in their visceral honesty, and helpful in giving listeners a better understanding of what they could expect once the EP arrived.
Much to my surprise, yes, the performances in these videos are similar to what you hear on the record, but Piano Salt, as an album, includes a number of additional, albeit subtle at times, layers of accompaniment, adding to the depth and tone of the material. It’s first noticeable as small ripples of atmospheric guitar that builds into low string plucks, complimenting McMahon’s piano key stabbing in the second verse of “Slow Mover,” and it can be heard as lightly brushed percussion, aptly keeping time during the refrain of “Keeping Time.”
In the second half, outside of the obvious appearance of Leif Vollebekk’s Wurlitzer on “If You Call,” a steady, throbbing bass line appears in “Born to Die,” and during the frenetic conclusion of “Pasta,” more gently brushed percussion creating a clear rhythm underneath the tension and release of the piano, and McMahon’s larynx shredding howls.
In a small aside tucked in with the credits for Piano Salt on McMahon’s Bandcamp page, she refers to it as a stepping stone between two albums, and that the project was a way to “breathe in, and let the Salt breath go.”
Outside of the videos McMahon had shared in recent weeks prior to the release of the EP, she also debuted a brand new song—“Staying Down Low,” recorded in a similar fashion, featuring a percussionist creating a sharp, steady rhythm behind her jaunty piano and lyrics that, almost immediately, had me feeling both very seen and attacked.
McMahon’s return to, and current embracing of the piano as her instrument of choice, especially with a new song, hints at her interest in a less sonically visceral and combustible direction, but no less explosive in terms of her songwriting and vocal delivery, as she prepares for a second full length. The truth is, that, no matter what instrument McMahon is playing, the sheer amount of talent and confidence you can hear within her music is incredibly admirable. Salt was an arresting and promising debut—the blend of raucous thoughtfulness, coming from someone her age (mid-20s), is astounding. One of my favorite records of 2019, Salt is still—and I don’t think it was in any risk of this—a very compelling and important listen, even as interests, enthusiasms, and tastes change from year to year.
Piano Salt, either a way of McMahon letting Salt go, or a way for us, as listeners, to hang onto it a little bit longer and appreciate some of these songs in a new, startling presentation, is a fascinating, blistering collection that allows McMahon to show her prowess as a singer, a songwriter, a musician, and most of all, a creative arranger with way she both deconstructs two covers, as well as her own material, giving those songs not so much ‘new’ life, but a different, or alternate existence than the ones they had prior.
I’ll tell you something that I’ve learned, as we’ve been watching people leaving…
My co-workers and I sometimes joke about the ‘before times’—the time that came before March, or even last year.
Or the year before that. Times that seem gone forever, like tears in the rain.
When things were not how they are now; when things were not how they will remain for the foreseeable future.
It’s been over 200 days, which puts a lot of things into perspective.
Early on, a handful of people I worked with departed almost immediately—rightfully uncomfortable with the position we were all being thrown into, of interacting somewhat closely and very directly with the public during a pandemic; or, rightfully disappointed at the overall lack of concern and empathy, coming from management, for the safety of the staff.
People depart, and those that remain begin to spread themselves thinner over the course of 200 days—spreading ourselves beyond a breaking point, where are all forced to push ourselves just a little bit more; forced to compartmentalize all the anger and resentment, the fear and anxiety, the loneliness, depression, the physical pain we are putting our bodies through—pushing that all further and further down in order to make it through the day. Not even to make it through the day in ‘one piece,’—just to get to the end of the day.
People continue to come, and then go, and when someone expresses concern over the rock bottom morale, they are told that they are, in fact, ‘fine.’ That everything, and everyone, is ‘fine.’
I, specifically, was told that it seemed like my ‘head was in a good place,’ and that I was a ‘good dude.’ I was told this and all I could do was laugh because I was too exhausted to cry.
I have watched people fall apart completely, but be in a position where they have no choice but to put themselves back together.
I have watched people fall apart completely, but they are unable to recover.
“I’ll tell you something that I’ve learned as, we’ve been watching people leaving,” McMahon sings in the conclusion to “If You Call.”
“All the loving that we’ve earned is gonna keep us breathing.”
Her words echo out, into the silence of my morning walks. But I realize now that it takes more that, though, doesn’t it?
1- I talked about this a lot in my review of Norman Fucking Rockwell, but Lana Del Rey, aka Elizabeth Grant, never claimed to be some kind of great feminist; I, also, did not say she was an artist who was concerned with being a feminist icon, or even a great role model for other women. The whole dating a hunky cop thing was a problem for a ton of people, and earlier this year she really went all in with some very wild, concerning Instagram posts about double standards with women in the music industry, and they came off pretty tone deaf, and possibly racist. Like, but I still fuck with Lana Del Rey, even though. I’m just saying she’s one of those artist where you have to really draw the line between the person and the persona and the art from the artist and for some reason it’s easier for me to do that with her than with others.
2- I introduced my friend Andrea (shout out to the homie, gang gang) to Angie McMahon like, literally, right after I heard Salt for the first time, and my friend Kate (again, shout out to the o.g. homegirl, gang gang) also was a huge fan shorty after the album’s release last summer, and whenever I speak with either of them about McMahon, specifically one of her covers, one of them usually ends up saying, “How is she so good?” And my response is always, “I KNOW!”