Erin McKeown | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Twenty-five-year-old Erin McKeown started out on the coffeehouse circuit as an oddball folkie, but her early recordings, particularly Distillation (Signature Sounds, 2000), suggested she was onto something bigger. On that record she sang personal originals and strummed acoustic guitar, but she avoided the breathy, earnest vocal style of so many confessional singer-songwriters. She sounded like a misplaced jazz singer, and she made her pretty pop songs swing. McKeown had enrolled at Brown University expecting to study biology, but she ended up in musical theater, and although her repertoire thankfully doesn't include show tunes, her rhythmic elan and fetching sense of melody suggest an understanding of music that's both broad and deep. She makes a few unfortunate decisions on her new album, Grand (Nettwerk): she plays up the jazzy elements on the hard-swinging "The Taste of You" (with a muted trumpet solo and Jo Jones-style drumming) and indulges in some wan western swing on "How to Be a Lady" rather than allowing her voice to suggest those influences, as she's done in her previous work. And producer David Chalfant has given the recordings a pop sheen that sometimes doesn't fit the material: he loads on the soft-focus vocal harmonies, and the electric guitars shimmer more than they bite. But McKeown's curvy voice cuts through, and for the most part her choices work. She sprints through "Cinematic," seductively arches notes in "James," and taps into some folk-rocky sobriety on "Envelopes of Glassine." I definitely prefer her stripped-down stuff, but with Grand McKeown has made a convincing case that her music might have a more mainstream appeal. Wednesday, June 25, 8 PM, Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln; 773-404-9494.

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