In 1920, Robert Frost wrote The Road Less Travelled whose last two lines are…
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The truth is that we all, every single one of us, walk a ‘road less travelled’ because every road/path is singular. We are the only ones travelling our path. The songs on Clean Water are brief glimpses into the singular road of Ali McCormick that is truly “one less traveled by”, and this road has, for her song-crafting and music, definitely “made all the difference”.
At first listening, it seems that this is a Country-Folk album, but that is not the case. Carefully chosen instrumental experimentation pollinates Clean Water without predetermined boundaries yet, engraved with the craft-wisdom borne of almost a lifetime of composing and performing. Each individual element is essential to the song it is handsewn into – each there to evoke, only as a poet devoted can, what she feels and intends to give voice to.
Listen to the addition of electronic strings and tiptoeing piano notes enhancing the slowed-down tempo of the last verse of Along The Way, the opening song. This blending of elements not common to Folk or Country poses a counterpoint to the balance of the song’s toe-tapping rhythmic pulse while simultaneously underscoring its melancholic lyrical phrases…
…like a momentary pause to remember.
In time I’ll think of you and how I begged you not to go
Oh you know it’s hard, just keep on truckin’
With my head held high and my heart on fire
For all the Love we’ve left behind
Along the way
Ali’s vocal phrasing is superb – honed by countless gigs on the road. You can hear how she emphasizes the deep hurt embedded in the first line of this verse by the way she breaks it into small sighs – “In time / I’ll think of you / and how I begged / you not to go…” – like small stabs to her heart.
Throughout the album, Blair Michael Hogan‘s electric guitar, mandolin, and piano and Spartan‘s percussion, bass, and electronics never get in the way of Ali’s compositions or her clear, strong, expressive voice. Rather, they are the colours and patterns that enhance and add breadth to her already compelling compositions. Likewise for the mixing and mastering by Brock Zeman (The Big Muddy Studio) and Steve Foley (Audio Valley), and Brock’s production.
Whether obvious or veiled, the ‘road’ running through Clean Water is a journey through the hills, vales, bridges, and way-stations of relationships. Friendships, family, romantic embraces – we all experience them. The craft of the songwriter, the poet, is to etch into words and music the emotions, entanglements and encounters that we all live but, because they are so deep or painful or profound, they leave us mute.
Without the songwriter and the poet, we would perish from these burdens.
Resolve and “no regrets” underlies Along The Way, while in Awful Tall there is love without resolution – the distance of “…the other woman” who watches a relationship’s breakdown because she is only “…just a happy distraction”. She knows, in essence, that “I am not…yours”.
The passage of this album wanders a lanscape of rendezvous and episodes. Iron City, Thinkin’ On You, and One More Night explore the pull of one to another. Number & Shoes, the contrast of the loneliness of a musician’s life coupled with a relationship. Hardwood Floors bespeaks of those times when you just ‘do’ without the care of consequences or “…what the neighbours say”. We all have that wee bit of rebel child in us.
Where Ali steps a different path is with the album title song, Clean Water, and The Spark. Though they both are odes to this planet we are a part of, the later speaks of realising that when “…you’re barely getting by” just pause and see that “…a thousand wonders feed the spark in your eye” from all that Mother Earth is. Where the former not only exposes how we treat our ‘home’ by our neglect and disregard, but also how so many of us are so focused on our small lives, neglect comes easy. Ali seeks to leave this ‘rat-race’ behind because she knows that if “you’re drivin’ to work”, also “you’re workin’ to drive”, and the only conclusion is – “you’re livin’ to die”.
What we really need is “Clean Water”, for without it, everything is dead.
The most poignant song on the whole album is Dad’s Time.
As children we don’t realise that one day, our parents won’t be here. Like all that lives in this vast timeless universe, they will eventually leave us to whatever great beyond there is. Their lives, just as ours, are underscored by “…time ticking on the clock…”.
Our parents have their habits and routines that give us a solid stability which permeates our lives. Growing up, we don’t notice these routines. They become intricate, unconscious patterns woven into our psyche that define our parents to us and, to a certain extent, define us. They give us that solid ground which we can hold on to in our times of profound troubles and of deep loves.
One day, after you have been out in the world creating your own future, you look back and see your parents in a different light. You see them as those individuals who were, and should be now, the closest and most important to you. They, in essence, made you who you are and because they were there, your parents were the foundation of your current life.
Often, you are just a bit closer to one of your parents than the other. There is an indescribable deeper bond that resonates with you on an unexplainable level. You want to spend time together, doing the same things, or just sit and talk on nothing in particular, or work on or build something together, or sometimes…
…just take a quiet meandering stroll.
Wrapped into the three minutes of Dad’s Time is that tsunami of emotions that pulls you under when you realise that this special person in your life won’t be here much longer. It hits you that you “…don’t know what I’ll do when he rides that long black train…” and that “…all this time that I’ve been wasting…” becoming who you want to be and getting where you want to get, you have not spent as much time as you would have liked to with this most important person.
All you can hear is “…time ticking on the clock”.
Each song on Clean Water has its unique history – each a thread of the tapestry she has carded and woven journeying on her own road less travelled. Each one a memory, a wound, a joy, or a deep passion that Ali McCormick has gathered “along the way”.
You can get Clean Water on her Bandcamp ⇒
And Ali will be going on tour in June…