The Mendoza Line were a musically scattered but peculiarly splendid bunch of drunks who started out in Athens, Georgia sometime in the ‘90s, but who really hit their stride and became a solid musical unit upon moving to New York City at the end of the decade. They were one of those rare groups that actually got better and better with each little gem they put out, making it particularly painful when word spread of their breakup – not just of the band itself, but of the marriage of lead singers and songwriters Timothy Bracy and Shannon McArdle.
Ten years ago (geez, has it been that long?), Bar/None Records released McArdle’s first solo album, Summer of the Whore, with Fear the Dream of Axes following four years later. Both are fearless lyrically and subtly intoxicating musically, and I’d recommend either depending on your individual mood or state of mind. But if you’ve never heard her, A Touch of Class is the album that you should probably dive in with. I’ve always been a fan of Shannon, but I’m not overstating when I declare this her most cohesive, satisfying and rewarding work to date. Collaborating on arrangements with former Mendoza Line cohort Clint Newman, the ten songs bear all of the qualities that lift McArdle far above the cluttered singer-songwriter chicken coup: that naked, exquisite voice that exudes plainspoken Southern warmth and wounded wallflower loneliness in a single verse; the blunt honesty and detailed depictions of her lyrics, lending every song a distinct feminine flair and insight (and occasionally the full weight of life’s own gravity); and understated but artfully effective music that bridges the distance between dusty dirt roads, downtown dive bars and college town coffee shops.
“Five Modes” strums the album to life with a whiff of Linda Ronstadt’s version of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” in its undercurrent. It marries shadow-cast folk-rock and early ’70s Laurel Canyon/fringe-jacket AM pop into a soulful yet intimate country morning stroll. These elements inform the whole album in various positions and configurations, accentuating its mid-life melancholy. “Why Do We Live Where We Do” builds upon a gently persistent bed of piano, bass, percussion and guitar as McArdle ponders a change of location when ultimately it’s a change of situation she’s looking for. Electric piano and violin steer the stark “Like a Harlot Would,” while organ and pedal steel do the same for “Hunger Strike” a few tracks later, both songs tangled in emotional discontent and emptiness, a persistent presence in McArdle’s writing. “The Grand Execution” is the most straightforward, upbeat jangle-rocker of the bunch, still its uneasy chorus asks: “Is this when I lose you?” The closing song, “Country Music” – wherein she puts New York poet Michael Robbins’ perspectives of a musician traveling alone from bus depot to bus depot to an appropriately countrified tune – simultaneously stands apart and fits perfectly.
If someone like Emmylou Harris made this album, it’d win a Grammy. Granted, it’d be one of those Grammys that are given out in the middle of the afternoon, long before the broadcast starts, that are rattled off in rapid-fire announcements going into commercial breaks during the actual show, but still… it’d get attention, it’d get bigtime praise, it’d be written up in USA Today and Wine Spectator and Mother Earth News. You at least owe it a listen, if you have any taste at all.
A Touch of Class