- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Erin McCarley
Love, Save the Empty

“Love, Save the Empty” marks singer-songwriter Erin McCarley’s album debut, but her music has enjoyed wide circulation on TV shows including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “One Tree Hill.”

Miss McCarley’s songwriting tends toward the kind of keening, wistful plaint that typically is used to score angsty outros and closing credits of prime-time soap operas. Her songs hinge on bright, major-key piano rhythms that frequently paper over or belie interior darkness. This motif (or cliche, depending on how charitably you wish to describe it) of despairing innocence characterizes a lot of the very recent generation of piano-based female singer-songwriters, such as Regina Spektor and Kate Nash. From the first cheery, “Chopsticks”-like riff of the first song, “Pony (It’s OK),” Miss Spektor’s influence is evident. Other voices come through as well - Miss McCarley names Fiona Apple and Patty Griffin among influencers, and there’s a touch of Aimee Mann’s musicality here as well.

The downbeat track “Lovesick Mistake” mixes rhythmic piano chords with a kicky drum track, layered with strains of cello and violin. The track cedes most of its sonic space to Miss McCarley’s voice. A moderately gifted if not particularly idiosyncratic singer, she is all about imparting mood. Singing in a kind of loud whisper - aspirating at the end of critical lyrics - Miss McCarley is able to convey a soloist’s intimacy in the midst of a welter of orchestration.

The title track is best understood as a kind of prayer to love itself. It opens with a progression of arpeggiated intervals that sounds like a cutesy recital exercise. Miss McCarley’s lyrics take an unexpectedly dark turn, describing in brief, plaintive terms a regrettable sexual encounter and the lingering shame of its aftermath. She sings: “Stars feel like knives/ They tell us why we’re fighting/Storm, wait outside/Oh, love, hold us together.” The simple octave intro is repeated as the song builds and is backed by a swelling of strings, drums and synth. There is a gathering emotional weight to the song that intensifies with repeat listenings.

“It’s Not That Easy,” another standout, is the album’s token guitar-driven track. A vampish synth sound trades licks with a folksy acoustic guitar, giving the song an ethereal flavor that’s enhanced with some of the album’s rare backing vocals. Miss McCarley belts out this one, whispering just here and there. However, the lyrics - lamenting being too emotionally damaged to risk true love - are a bit generic.

“Love, Save the Empty” is a bit uneven, but its best songs have staying power. Though her lyrics seem introspective and deeply felt, they lack the kind of narrative specificity and original characterizations that make, say, Aimee Mann’s songs so memorable. For a debut, “Love, Save the Empty” seems at times a bit too polished, too produced - not untypical for a promising artist’s debut on a major label. It would be nice to hear at least an inkling of how the unaccompanied Miss McCarley sounds.

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