REVIEW: Jessi McNeal tells vivid stories on the muted album ‘The Driveway’


Some artists seem like natural-born storytellers. When you hear the new album The Driveway by Jessi McNeal, you realize that she is one of them.

What’s interesting about this album is that while it is an album that leans toward country and folk, there is something about it that is reminiscent of 90s Britpop. For example, the airy harmony vocals in “Paint It in the Sky” somehow bring to mind bands like The Darling Buds. At the beginning of “Out of Reach,” McNeal’s breathy vocals recall Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays both in the delivery and the tone. Meanwhile, the melody is layered and seems to come from every direction.

McNeal never strains when she sings – even when she hits the higher notes. Her voice is always breathy and even. That breathy quality brings Carla Bruni to mind although McNeal’s vocals are more polished. The thing is, that lack of strain is really what makes her vocals more powerful – particularly on top of the muted melodies throughout the album. On top of that her breathy vocals are the perfect accompaniment for the spacey sounds you hear from the guitars of Jon Anderson and Warren Lubben. They put a lot of space between notes, which lends a sort of psychedelic sound to some of the songs like “Won’t Run Dry” and “If I Go Over”.

“When the Fire Came” is a good example of why she never needs to strain when she sings. She tells a story that includes a lakehouse photo, and quilts in which babies were wrapped. As some spacey pedal steel and mandolin play in the background, she sings, “But when the fire came, it showed no mercy. It just burned like hell. It took almost everything.” And as she sings, you’re right there looking at the charred remains of a house full of memories.

“The Driveway” is another song in which she paints a vivid picture. The narrator longs to see someone whose return date is indefinite. She states, “You know that my love waits, and when I get that call, I’ll meet you on the driveway.” She does such a good job that you can easily visualize the reunion in the driveway.

This album was produced, recorded, engineered, mixed, and mastered by Ryan McAllister, who also provides backing vocals. It is a tremendous display of storytelling and songwriting. It is also a fine example of how an album doesn’t need to go heavy on the volume to be powerful. The Driveway will be available everywhere on August 23. Order your copy here.

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