by Laura Stanley & Michael Thomas
Mo Kenney’s In My Dreams came out September 30, and both Laura and Michael found the album to be worthy of close dissection. Much like Grayowl’s previous double review, this will be in a Crosstalk-esque format.
Michael: When Mo Kenney appeared in the music scene it was like she was an old soul—except she hasn’t even hit 25 yet. Her self-titled debut was chock full of maturity both in musical composition—like in the Joel Plaskett-featuring “Scene of the Crime” or the intense “Five Years.” Kenney even won a Socan prize for the poignant “Sucker.”
And when it came time for a follow-up, lo and behold. Kenney has stepped up both her songwriting and her arrangements. Her songs can range from the devastatingly simple (“Telephones”) to the obliteratingly complex (“Untouchable”). And if the arrangements weren’t enough, oh boy does Kenney knock it out of the park with her lyrics.
The opener “I Faked It” speaks for herself, and Kenney is so nonchalant that it gives the lyrics extra power. The aforementioned “Telephone,” a cover of a song by Halifax’s Mardeen, gets especially powerful as Kenney sings “When we’re alone together talkin’ like babies/I know just how to keep you in my head.” And let’s not forget the way Kenney introduces “Take Me Outisde”: “Take me outside and blow my fucking head off with your eyes.”
Suffice to say this album features a lot of heartbreak, where Kenney sometimes wallows in despair (“Wind Will Blow”) but is other times just plain angry (“Dancing”).
Laura, you and I both felt a deep emotional connection to “Telephones” and are generally a sucker for such painfully honest lyrics. Which songs really hit home for you the most, and why?
Laura: I’m so glad that you too felt the attitude Kenney brings to In My Dreams. My favourite quality of this record is Kenney’s fresh, unabashed attitude. Where she skirted around some of the more hard hitting moments in her self-titled, ultimately thanks to its lighter folk-pop touch, there is no gloss here. There’s quite the difference between “Hey, I’m a sucker for your face, “ as heard in 2012’s “Sucker” and, as you previously mentioned, the line, “take me outside and blow my fucking head off with your eyes,” in “Take Me Outside.”
Kenney’s ability to turn a phrase continues to be why she is such a great songwriter. Along with ‘Take Me Outside,” the album’s opener, “I Faked It” hit me hard. With a muted backing instrumentation, Kenney delivers this song with a matter-of-fact tone that makes it sting. Perfectly set up with a brief pause in the instrumentals, Kenney sings, “I faked it, it was never you and me. When I said it was forever, I was lying through my teeth.” The attitude here is loud and it is thrilling.
As you recall, after first hearing “Telephones” I immediately sent you a Facebook message saying that I couldn’t stop pressing the replay button to which you quoted the song and said, ““You used to make my Mondays Saturdays.” Damn.” I then said, “YES! Absolute pain” and cited the repetition of “our fights have fucked our shelter” as being a good line as well.
Being that it is a cover, Kenney’s delivery of these lines is done with a skill and passion that really allows the song to come alive. Even the fun lyric, “you listen to techno, I hate that stuff” is said with a fervour that highlights the talent vocal flair that Kenney possesses.
Lastly, “Untouchable” feels like something Kenney has never done before and also hits hard. With a slight blues flair, the instrumentals are again slightly subdued with Kenney’s powerful vocals taking the spotlight. It’s not until the latter half the song when a guitar solo erupts which eventually leads to a final big-time rendition of the song’s chorus. Here, the maturation of Kenney is in full-swing and with it an exploration of a fuller sound that’s just as strong as anything we have heard in the past.
From an instrumental arrangement and subsequent genre perspective, Michael how do you feel In My Dreams differs from Kenney’s first record?
Michael: I think my answer to the latter half of your question will lead into the former half. Her self-titled debut could pretty comfortably fit into the folk bracket, with a bit of pop-rock stylings here and there, like the aforementioned “Scene of the Crime” and its fuzzy guitar, or the pure singalong chorus of “Deja Vu” (which remains firmly my favourite song of that record). Whereas In My Dreams branches out so much more (in almost every song, according to my notes) that I will give this genre the most clumsy name ever: wolf-in-pop-rock-sheep’s-clothing.
To elaborate: Mo Kenney’s sound fits comfortably on the docket of sounds do well on CBC Radio 3, but to simply say that would be a major disservice. There’s a sort of experimental side to this album that you won’t hear unless you’re sitting down and paying attention. Take “Field Song” for example, which begins with percussive taps and some strummed guitar chords that make it sound like it could fit into Norah Jones’ catalogue. At about a minute-and-a-half, though, Kenney’s vocals start to echo and new sounds gradually come into the mix. Nothing this psychedelic has been a part of Kenney’s body of work so far (though there’s a hint of psychedelia in “I Faked It” as well).
Or how about the crazy, distorted guitar interlude in “Mountains to the Mess?” It could just be an uptempo pop-rock number but it manages to pack a wallop in its scant 2:30-ish running time. And the song also sees another instrument in Kenney’s arsenal—her voice—take on new dimensions. As she sings “I’m on top of the world/Who put me here?” there’s a very faint hint of strain on her voice, adding to the weary delivery that suggests that maybe, just maybe, being “On top of the world” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or “Pretty Things,” with all its powerfully-strummed chords that decides to throw in a melodica later on for good measure.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that the way this album differs from the previous is that Mo Kenney expands her instrumental arsenal, and her stylistic arsenal, to create an album that shines nearly every minute—but only if you’re paying attention, otherwise it might drift past you like a dream.
As we near the end of this discussion, Laura, what surprised you most about this album? And what do you hope to see in future albums from Mo Kenney?
Laura: While I agree with everything that you are saying re: how genre-wise how this album differs from her last, my initial reaction to your question is that nothing surprised me. In My Dreams features all of the great qualities of Kenney’s debut record (clever songwriting, melodious hooks etc.), plus a new confidence that should come with a second record. This natural progress and maturation is one that feels easy because of Kenney’s strengths as a musician.
Relatedly, looking into the future I hope that Kenney keeps doing what feels natural as it is clear that Mo Kenney’s dreams are well worth exploring.
Laura’s top tracks: “Take me Outside,” “Telephones”
Laura’s rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)
Michael’s top tracks: “Telephones,” “Untouchable”
Michael’s rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)