Erin Rae Putting on Airs

[Single Lock; 2018]

Styles: indie rock, folk rock, alternative country
Others: Angel Olsen, Big Thief

Like so many people born in the 1990s, Erin Rae McKaskle is infatuated with anachronisms. Her music drips with the influence of a bygone era of folk and country singers, one that revels in the resonance of deep vocal reverb and the intimacy of closely-mic’d acoustic guitars. This adoration of folk music’s halcyon days certainly belies her age; at 28 years, Erin Rae is hardly a fledgling in the music scene of her hometown of Nashville, but her kinship to the bucolic/melancholic sounds of 1960s and 70s country and western contradicts the expectations of a singer not even 30 years old. And that’s where so much of the charm of Putting on Airs, her latest album, emanates. As a throwback to the emotional candor and straightforward arrangements of folk, country, and even indie rock’s days of yore, Airs resists the cheap gratification of the indie genre’s tendency of plundering from rock & roll’s rich past with only a passing fancy. Rae’s commitment to serving the dignity and stateliness of those genres is the record’s greatest asset, and with it comes the authenticity of a younger artist who’s keenly aware of her modest place in Nashville’s wide musical tapestry, but nonetheless confident enough to prove her salt time and again.

Beginning with “Grand Scheme,” it immediately becomes clear that Rae, along with producers Dan Knobler and Jerry Bernhardt, have a specific window of time in mind for the album’s sonic aesthetic. By the middle of the song, cannonading kettle drums overtake McKaskle’s vocals and guitar in a Wrecking Crew-like fashion. Elsewhere, there are nods to other hallmarks of this era, like the gruff, Sticky Fingers rhythm guitar on “Like the First Time” or the Joni Mitchell staidness of Erin’s performance on “Can’t Cut Loose.” As with any newer artist borrowing from the oft-appropriated sound of mid-1960s/early-70s rock and pop, the question of originality rears its head. But Rae’s dutiful abidance of the tropes of that era, when coupled with her singular, shaded lyrics, dispels any concerns about fraudulence.

Erin Rae’s gentle coo and unassuming melodies sound pacifying upon first listen, but she often proves herself more vindictive than this honeyed voice lets on. On “Mississippi Queen,” she admonishes her prodigal subject, singing, “Don’t you wish you were still green?/ Like when you could get high off a little hit?” But even still, Rae isn’t entirely devoid of empathy here: recalling her own brush with addiction, she adds, “I know what you’re saying, I’ve been there.” By other turns, though, Erin is forthrightly simple, like on “Bad Mind,” in which she proclaims, plainly, “I can’t own my fears/ I don’t wanna have a bad mind.” The same is true of the unpretentious final lines in “Grand Scheme”: “How small we are in the grand scheme/ How great.” However, that axiom can be understood as a great relief or a greater burden, depending on how seriously you take yourself.

While her generation’s overindulgence in nostalgia has often (and maybe rightfully) been denigrated as frivolous and facile, Rae’s insistence on hearkening back to her favorite genres’ heydays never sounds like a put on. Rather, it feels like escapism in the most sincere sense; a search for comfort in a distant epoch, far removed from this current one. And as if her voice were afflicted with progeria, Erin Rae sounds wizened and contemplative beyond her years. She’s using Putting on Airs as a platform to confront her inner demons. As she puts it, “this album was born out of a need to do some healing work in my personal life[.]” McKaskle, like any good artist, is making music for herself first and foremost, as a panacea to her own woes. For the rest of us, it’s just a privilege to listen to.

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