Joanna McMeikan, Breaking the Habit
by: Steve Horowitz
Joanna McMeikan is blessed with a voice that is both earthy and ethereal as if she's a force of nature. She manages to sound sensual and spiritual at the same time, which gives her music a layered sensibility. She creates aural landscapes replete with atmospheres that are somehow cinematic in scope. For example, her vocals bring to mind the barren sparseness of winter when she sings of "January Snow," even when listening on a sunny, Spring day. One visualizes the bright white scenery, bitter cold air, and drab gray skies through McMeikan's musical evocation.
The 11 self-penned songs on Breaking the Habit range from playful to sophisticated. McMeikan sings them all with a kind of controlled fury. She's mad that the world is not a better place, that she is not a better person, and that she still hasn't found true love. These are serious concerns, but too often she leaves out the details and constructs a blurred image when a sharp portrait is in order. Her lyrics can border on cliché and seem trite, even when the passion behind them feels real. Consider lines like "I know the river keeps on flowing/but I try to turn the tide" from "Again," or "But all you wanted was a China doll/to lock inside your glass house" from "Galetea," or "Never thought I could do this/didn't think I was this kind" from "Lover of Mine." These are overly familiar sentiments and sayings that have been strewn over pop songs for decades. There's nothing new here, and if it weren't for McMeikan's compelling voice, not worth hearing.
Ah, but the vocals compel one to listen, and when McMeikan does particularize her thoughts and feelings the results are rewarding. Her diatribe against a former lover and old friend who have betrayed her for each other comes out powerfully through her clipped litany of pain on "Laughable Tragedy" as she powerfully sings "We've got plastic smiles in our pockets/and I'm gonna have one tattooed onto my lips/as a reminder/to remember/and never/ trust anyone/ whose too fond/of Mahler." The punches in the stomach come in the almost martial cadences, but the felling blow comes with the reference to her ex-boyfriend's love of Mahler, whose emotional maelstroms and terrible treatment of the women in the German composer's life is well known.
McMeikan not only sings lead vocals, she also dubs backing vocals on the tracks and often harmonizes with herself for effect. This is especially successful on tracks like "Merry-Go-Round" whose lyrics is basically an interior monologue. As McMeikan talks to herself about her life and what she should do, her two (or more) voices intertwine to suggest the many people whose voices reside inside our heads and hearts. McMeikan also handles a number of instruments, playing piano, keyboards, recorder, and bass on several tunes. Mario Maisonnave on additional keyboards and percussion, Todd Wolf on drums, and several different guitarists and stringed instrument players ably back her.
Breaking the Habit reveals McMeikan's efforts at musical exploration. The songs frequently move to strange tempos and rhythms, enhanced by the production (by McMeikan and Maissonnave), which captures the sonic possibilities of McMeikan's voice and that of the instrumentation by keeping things sharp and crisp. The disc's title accurately conveys McMeikan's desire to do something new.