BY MARY LEARY
Heather Maloney is one of the most talented tradition-based (as in the traditions of white ‘50s folk music through those of mid-late ‘90s acoustic-based coffeehouse heroes and heroines) singer-songwriters I’ve heard in some time. Sure, some of her ability to absorb stems from a knack for integrating the oft offbeat timing and confident elasticity of Joni Mitchell circa Ladies of the Canyon and Court and Spark. “Iron Bull,” for instance, would seem like a stroke of genius were I not intimate with Mitchell’s classic oeuvre. It’s still a creative, ebullient bit of writing.
Some of Maloney’s music also channels the meant-to-be winsome eccentricity of singer/songwriters such as Alanis Morissette and Aimee Mann. I say “meant to be” because I’m not among those who’ve hung on every word emitted by either of the latter; finding their output too often terminally introspective, self-indulgent, and/or boringly repetitive/predictable.
Whatever her influences may be, Maloney’s profile has apparently become increasingly recognizable within the East coast music hall and café circuit. Her debut, Cozy Razor’s Edge, was released in 2009. Heather Maloney is her first album with the rather adventurous, acoustic-leaning Signature Sounds label.
Some of Maloney’s writing is stunning. Along with her acoustic guitar, interpretive finesse is added by Ken Malurl on bass and Duke Levine on banjo and electric guitar. Her songs merit the treatment more often than the usual album-length percentage. Whether or not it derives from Mitchell’s groundbreaking brilliance, “Darlene” is a well-constructed composition that leaves plenty of room for Maloney’s “Ooh”s and “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh”s – live, it probably invites goose bumps. The slow balladry of “Flying on Helium” is evocative and lovely. The early ’60s pop-influenced “I’m on Fire” is ridiculously engaging. And despite the hackneyed quality of drawing a slyly judgmental portrait of a lone figure, on “Miss Mary Mack” the chorus splays out of the verses as well as Ray Davies’ did on “Well Respected Man.”
So if Maloney’s vocals are a bit too nasal; a mite too gratingly intense on the catchy “Great Imposter,” the country-fied “Dirt and Stardust,” and the high-stepping “Hey Broken,” some of her excesses can be pardoned. She’s been playing to adoring audiences. She’s picked up a few stylings from some of the most naval-gazing, “It’s all good” songwriters in history. And she sometimes seems to forget that she’s not, in fact, Joni Mitchell, whose brilliance for placement and restraint rivaled her innovative construction.
Which dovetails with what’s mean to be a last, constructive comment – really, to a lot of artists whose album-length sounds are suddenly reaching new ears after those artists have become accustomed to live kudos and after-show hugs – who then fail to envision the difference between the good-time vibes of live performances and the more sober, objective, recorded listening experience of strangers. A bit of restraint can go a long way. Had three tracks been thrown off this album, and Maloney been less indulgent with some of her vocals, I’d be more inclined to blurt something reckless, such as “Grammy contender.” Still, in an era of single track purchases, along with the cachet of showcases such as “All Songs Considered” and “The Prairie Home Companion” – both of which are likely to welcome Ms. Maloney – a Grammy contender she may turn out to be.
DOWNLOAD: “Iron Bull,” “Darlene,” Miss Mary Mack,” “I’m on Fire,” “Flying on Helium”