It's safe to say that Chicago based singer-songwriter Michael Mcdermott has been round the block a few times in his 25 year career. 'Willow Springs' is his tenth solo record and, according to Michael, is an album of 'reckoning'. His biography tells us of early promise and comparisons with Springsteen and Dylan, but unfortunately a promise not fully realised. Whilst always working as a musician, there followed years of struggle both as an artist and as a man, with tales of self-destruction and squandered talent.
Luckily, with a wife and the responsibilities of parenthood, he has slowed down a little and the album covers this transition as well as the loss of his father, dealing with sobriety and numerous other life events. He tells us 'That journey is reflected in these songs. Willow Springs is the name of the place where I took refuge and had to confront a lot of things'.
As would be expected given the subject matter, all of the twelve songs are Michael Mcdermott originals and he recorded and produced the album as well. Mixing was by long time collaborator Rex Price and Michael was also able to enlist a great line up of supporting musicians who add real texture and depth to the overall sound captured here.
The Bob Dylan references are immediate on the first track 'Willow Springs' with its urgently tumbling, stream of consciousness lyrics and clever word play in a number that stretches to over six minutes. Add in a vocal that is reminiscent in tone, style and delivery of Dylan back in the days when he could both sing and be bothered to write original songs and you have a fine opener.
Second song 'These Last Few Days' has a Johnny Cash type, choppy acoustic guitar part that builds and layers through the track which also boasts a strong, pleading vocal and a really commercial hook.
'Getaway Car' follows and strongly references Bruce Springsteen in ballad, confessional mode to the extent that I had to double check that this was a Michael Mcdermott original and not a Springsteen cover. Undoubtedly, a very strong performance and great track, but perhaps a little too close to Springsteen to be entirely convincing.
'Soldiers Of The Same War' banishes any sense of things being derivative and is simply a fine song superbly delivered. It has a tight, menacing rhythm track, clever lyrics and a beautifully, warm, husky vocal with brilliant playing all round that builds powerfully through the track.
I hope the Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen reference points do not pigeon hole this album too much. As reference points go, they are obviously not bad ones to have on a CV but there is far more to this album than echoes of them. For me, this is American Country, Folk, and Rock at its finest and occupies the same terrain as established artists like John Hiatt, John Mellencamp and Steve Earle plus more recent arrivals such as The White Buffalo and David Ramirez.
Whilst every song on this album has something to offer and favourites will very much be down to personal preference, a couple of further stand out tracks are 'Folksinger' and 'Shadow In The Window'. 'Folksinger' is beautifully picked on the guitar as Michael sings of the things he 'don't want to be anymore' and the song deftly treads that thorny ground between bitterness, longing and hope in a really moving manner. 'Shadow In The Window' feels like another personal song, very literal and immediate and is, I think, about the loss of his Father. In fact, this one feels so personal that in places it is like guiltily overhearing someone else's secrets. Cleverly arranged, played and sung, it is again delivered in a very direct way with no hiding behind metaphor or analogy, which must have been tempting with content this raw.
I really enjoyed this album, particularly those songs that sounded authentically Michael Mcdermott, of which there are many. He certainly has some interesting things to say, some of it heartbreakingly personal, but all delivered with style, grace and talent. Throw in a great voice, very polished playing from all involved and fine production values and you have a strong record indeed.
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