THE sincerity and authenticity that is immediately apparent when listening to the songs of Arlo McKinley is borne from the fact the Cincinnati based folk-rock songwriter is well versed on the ups and downs of life
His songs bear an honest testimony to his inner most thoughts and as reflective pieces they are such that people all over the world would have little trouble finding a familiar reflection in them of incidents in their own lives.
That fact is laid bare in exemplary fashion on the album, ‘This Mess We’re In’, which showcases McKinley as one the most important songwriters on the contemporary alt-folk scene.
The sublime ‘I Don’t Mind’ eases the listener in with its laid back acoustic intro and McKinley’s vocal tone is inviting and enticing in equal measure due to it its inherent warmth.
When the accompaniment expands it’s in an unruffled and sparse manner with a gentle violin and laidback percussive beat carrying things along.
Fans of Bob Dylan and Chris Stapleton will no doubt love this album, as will any discerning music enthusiast.
For the recording McKinley was joined by some formidable musicians including Dave Smith (bass), Ken Coomer (drums), Rick Steff (Wurlitzer), Matt-Ross-Spang (acoustic guitar), Will Sexton (electric guitar), Jessie Munson (fiddle), and Reba Russell (backing vocals).
McKinley himself handled acoustic guitar and vocals throughout. The playing on the album is impeccable and what’s really excellent is the fact that on each of the songs the accompaniment is uncomplicated and enhances the inherent qualities of each track.
‘City Lights’ is a lovely, mid-tempo country rocker with subtle hints of the classic era of country between the 50s and late 70s.
If Merle Haggard and Eagles had a collaborative offspring it would probably sound something like this. It’s an outstanding track and the lonely feel of the vocals gives the song a mesmerising quality.
McKinley goes down a more traditional country-folk route on ‘Back Home’ which further emphasises just how good a songwriter he is. The bass has a fantastic, warm tone, something common throughout the album, but on this particular track the bottom end seems particularly effective.
Lyrically, McKinley offers up images that many people could relate to. The analysis of the pitfalls of big city life is applicable to urban centres on every continent: ‘This city is a symphony, that never seems to be in key / I’ve tasted every sin, spit ‘em out and I tried again.’
But then, maybe we’re all victims of our success and failings: ‘I hold myself accountable
for everything that I have done, constant heat beneath my feet, I guess a glimpse of what’s to come.”
The intriguingly titled, ‘Stealing Dark From The Night Sky’, is another reflective song where one gets the impression the artist has looked deep inside himself to offer up an honest expression of love. Rhythmically, the song is set to a mid-tempo pace. The album is dedicated to McKinley’s late mother, Sharon Dianne Carr and to ‘the life lived and memories made’ with her and that fact puts the authentic and sincere feel of the songs fully into perspective.
‘To Die For’ is one of the most rocky songs on the album, however, it's still set to a mid-tempo rhythm. While McKinley has an original sound overall there is still a familiarity to his songs that make them extremely listenable and in turn, memorable.
‘Dancing Days’ is a ballad and as sincere a one as you are likely to hear all year. An aspect of McKinley’s songs that makes them stand out from many of his contemporaries is the fact there is nothing contrived about them; it’s songwriting at its best.
The reflective love song vibes are very evident on the album’s title track, ‘This Mess We’re In’. It’s an incredible number and deserves its place at the head of the table in terms of being the title track.
In contrast, ‘Rushinthemug’, takes things down a slightly more angry path and gives the listener a hint there may be some regrets: ‘I’m scared to death I’ll always be, what I’ve always been, I thought by now, that I’d be used to it.’
There is a lazy, dreamlike quality to ‘I Wish I’ which offers something a little different to what’s gone before. There are many standout tracks on the album and the consistently high standard of the songwriting throughout is astonishing.
‘Where You Want Me’ has a fantastic bass line and if there was such thing as ‘waltz-blues’ this track would fit the bill perfectly. The fiddle and general accompaniment is fantastic and the song leads perfectly into the album closer, ‘Here’s To The Dying’ which is a reflective song on the path of life. McKinley embraces different stylistic influences into his writing and the result is an album that fans of many different genres will find very appealing.