Bryan McPherson’s latest album packed with the emotional, personal and political
Disney owns the House of Blues in Anaheim, and they have been known to ban musicians before they even play there due to objectionable material. At least, that’s what they did to folk troubadour Bryan McPherson, who plays the Crepe Place this Friday. While opening for the Dropkick Murphys last year, he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to do the Anaheim show because of his “anti-political police views and drug insinuation.”
Certainly, the most surprising aspect to this story is that someone at Disney actually took the time to research McPherson beforehand, and read his lyrics. The thing is, Disney actually has a point: McPherson is openly against everything that Disney stands for—you know, big corporations in bed with the government screwing over the ever-shrinking middle class.
McPherson’s latest record, Wedgewood, is a fierce record, inspired by his time in 2011 as part of the Occupy Oakland movement, and it features plenty of material for Disney to hate. The song names say it all: “Burn it Down,” “Here We Go,” “Days of Rage.”
The material on the record isn’t strictly political. McPherson mixes social observations with stories of travel, self-discovery, love, and heartbreak. It’s vibrant folk music recorded simply and stripped down, but sprinkled with some backing vocals, piano, violin, and other little flourishes from song to song.
The album is a snapshot into McPherson’s life in 2011, when he moved to the East Bay from Boston and got heavily involved with the local music scene and the Occupy movement, and apparently fell in love with someone, then out of love. He then moved to Los Angeles, and took a big step forward into being a full-time touring musician. It’s all on the record.
There’s rarely a division between personal and political in his songs. McPherson observes himself and the world around him in one breath, and does so with a powerful, emotive voice and vivid imagery. Some songs lean more obviously into political territory like on “Days of Rage,” (“Fists clenched in blood/ With Occupy signs/ Beaten and broken/ By the FBI/ Calling America the homeland/ Kind of reminds me of the Nazis”), but these are on-the-street reports by a man that was part of the movement.
I find his more personal material stronger. Opener “Born on a Highway” touches on his decision to be a full-time touring musician, and it touches on his true rambling spirit. (“Some of us come lost/ Gotta get found.”) The lyrics border on corny, but McPherson is so earnest, and his voice is so passionate, that it works. Actually, his voice is his greatest asset. I’ve seen him silence a full bar singing a song a capella.
There’s also a handful of songs that—and McPherson has a knack for this—are vague but somehow quite moving. On his last record, American Boy, American Girl, my favorite was “Long Lost American” (“Here I go/ There I roam/ I’m a long lost American.”) I don’t really know what the song is about, though I have theories, yet it send shivers up my spine every time he hits the high notes, saying he’s a “Long lost American.” The standout track on Wedgewood is “Hearts in Boxcars,” another powerful track I don’t understand. (“Near and far/ We are tracks and scars/ We are hearts in boxcars”).
If there was a weakness I felt McPherson struggled with in the past, it was his lack of dynamics. He sang energetic folk songs at near constant full volume with heavy vibrato that sometimes got grating. On Wedgewood, McPherson exercises a lot more restraint. “Born on a Highway” is a quiet song, sung almost entirely in a low hushed voice, and yet it’s one of his strongest. He recorded the record in a friend’s cabin in the mountains over a three-month period, so maybe the peace and tranquility of nature rubbed off on the tunes, though even the mellower songs are packed with emotion.
The only downside to an otherwise excellent album is that a few of the songs drag a little bit. The seven-and-a-half minute “Songs From The Moon” is probably the album’s low point, but there are plenty of other great songs that more than make up for it.
INFO: Bryan McPherson plays the Crepe Place at 9 p.m. on Friday, July 3, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $8. 429-6994