Click to hear: “Nine Days”
Looks like Portland’s roster of singer-songwriters has a strong new prospect: Megan Jo Wilson.
On “Farm Day,” the first track on Wilson’s confident debut release, seed, stars, galaxies, an impressive complement of backing musicians lays the foundation upon which her considerable songwriting and vocal skills shine. It’s a meditation on the rewards of hard work and the honesty of farm life (and death). The subtlety of Ginger Cote’s drums and Paul Chamberlain’s bass, Mark Butterfield’s slickly understated acoustic guitar leads, and the always welcome backing vocals of Sara Cox provide cozy counterpoints to Wilson’s beautifully strong and clear lead vocal.
Wilson exudes a sureness in her voice and phrasing that belies a debut recording. Add to that her intelligent songwriting, and it’s apparent that she’s been studying and practicing her craft with zeal for years. Lyrically, “Farm Day” provides some fine moments of self-reflection, like “Still haven’t met a real man, in about a million years/So I guess I’ll just marry the dirt at my feet/’cause I’m tired of the tears.” But it also contains wry and playful lines like, “Billy’s cat snuck out of the house, when nobody was lookin’/had a good time just runnin’ around/met a car and her life got tookin’.”
Wilson is again backed by the combo of Cote, Chamberlain, Butterfield and Cox on “Take Me Away,” and Justin Maxwell provides fine upright bass accompaniment on two tracks (“Blessing” and “Dawn”). The remaining five songs showcase Wilson singing solo with her acoustic guitar.
On the solo track “Nine Days,” Wilson sings lead and backing vocals to great effect over an insistent guitar line. Thanks to Jim Begley’s excellent production work, which shines throughout the album, the song is elevated above standard singer-songwriter fare. Conversely, on “Blessing” (a track with just Maxwell’s upright bass accompanying Wilson), the mood calls to mind an extended Norah Jones jazz ballad. It’s nice and pretty, but frankly, not my cuppa tea.
The album’s most interesting turn comes when Wilson covers Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” solo, with her acoustic guitar. The vocal interpretation is fantastic, and illustrates again how adept Wilson is with phrasing. But the hiccup of the stuttering guitar arrangement, while intriguing at first, ultimately distracts too much from the vocal.
Following this ‘80s pop remake, Wilson brings the album back to the present with the fine “Doesn’t That Mean a Thing to You?” Here she picks and sings about desire for a man who’s “got a woman of [his] own” over a background of audio from a television shopping channel. Window shopping, indeed.
“Dawn,” a track featuring Maxwell and Cote, showcases Wilson’s finest songwriting on the album. Opening with the lines, “This morning was a shifting kind of light/Fingers of the dawn waving goodbye to the night/And I could not sleep through all the space in my bed,” it’s a song (like much of the album) about personal searching and growth. Wilson sings, “I have a scratch inside my mouth, and I can feel it/again and again with my tongue/And boy, it really makes me blush to think of all the damage I have done/I cannot wait to reach some kind of holy land/I cannot wait to meet the man who put this pitchfork in my hand.” The song ends as strongly as it begins: “Tell me why is it so hard for me to just let it all go?/Every time I start cutting off my hands/I have to stop when the blade reaches the bone.”
seed, stars, galaxies is a remarkable debut. It’s an intriguing listen as much for what is here as for what it promises from this versatile and confident young artist. Megan Jo Wilson has arrived. Grab a seat on the bandwagon.
— Tom Flynn
Megan Jo Wilson’s seed, stars, galaxies is available at music stores of distinction. For more, see meganjowilson.com.