YOU WILL KNOW WHEN YOU'RE THERE by Sean McMahon is out now through Blind Date Records
The sheer joy of hitting a big, growling (ringing) open chord on a ‘66 Harmony with a bit of grit is part of Sean McMahon’s performing and recording DNA. This approach worked successfully for McMahon’s earlier band Down Hills on their albums Minor Birds and The Wolves In The Woods, and so it is on One Foot Out The Door and Angel At Your Back, the opening songs on You Will Know When You're There, his debut album on Blind Date Records.
These songs, the first with its stark confession of a broken love and the second’s romance of a long-passed mentor, via its Waiting On My Man feel, mark the record’s thematic concerns for some kind of redemption or at least release. However, for much of the record McMahon departs from this big guitar approach allowing the songwriter to breathe the emotion of his tunes. McMahon sings in a way that brings a quiet authority to his songs allowing the economy of his lines to be savoured for their wry or poignant observations. Importantly that poignancy is part of the timbre of McMahon’s voice, a gentle ache that coaxes delicate melodies that earworm in a way that is wholly believable and moving.
This shift is noticeable in the group of songs that begin with Outsider Blues, an intimate, direct and plaintive song that addresses that place of disconnectedness, of loneliness, “I’m not the man I am when I’m with you.” This intimacy continues on the track ‘Just For An Hour’, a solo performance of vocal and acoustic guitar that tenderly portrays an adoration for another singer. McMahon is joined on Just To See You Again, by fellow Blind Date artist Freya Josephine Hollick and the aching blend of these two voices is mesmerising. From this point the arrangements maintain an uncluttered focus allowing the songs to flow, allowing a lightness of touch and a confidence in the strength of the songs to carry their weight.
Reference points might be Blood On The Tracks Bob Dylan or On The Beach or Harvest Moon Neil Young but that risks reducing the work to pastiche and the strings, fuzz guitar and organ of Show Me The Way aren’t in thrall to any particular style; they create their own. Much of this is down to McMahon’s choice of studio colleagues; in particular drummer and producer engineer Roger Bergodaz. Look at the credits on some of the best releases of recent times and his name will appear as player, engineer or producer.
The songs are the feature here; the accompaniment serves them, allowing the space to enjoy the inspired playing, whether it’s Jason Bunn’s viola, Matt Dixon’s pedal steel, Matt Green’s guitars or the rhythm section of Bergodaz and Tim McOrmack. Kelly Day’s vocals on Spring and We May Never are a delight, complementing McMahon’s with a wistful power.
There is a sense of arrival here. McMahon has distilled his influences into an exceptional selection of songs and his singing has delivered the promise of earlier work, that of a generously characterful voice capable of rich nuance, quiet power and that most desirable quality of all: believability. When every third person with a computer and a microphone is convinced of their artistic worth, You Will Know When You're There proves that to deliver something memorable, hard yards must be done, experience must be developed and craft learned and refined.