Review: Michele McLaughlin – Life
Life is Michele McLaughin's new solo piano album and it's yet another showcase for both her composing and her performing talents. It's been interesting seeing how her musical vision has evolved over the last few years as she navigated through some personal hardship and "healed" through her writing and playing her music. Some song titles indicate the artist has come to terms with her "life" and she has settled into a general sense of acceptance: "At Home," "A Deeper Understanding," "Stronger," "Crossroads," and "Give It Time." Other songs point to the path that has led her to this point in time: "The Storm" and "Heartbroken." All the song titles reveal how intensely personal this recording is to McLaughlin (which has been the case for her last several albums as well). Even on the quieter songs (and there are a few on this release) she plays with her trademark depth of commitment and passion.
"At Home" is gentle and warm, evoking a quiet night in front of the fire or perhaps watching the sunset over the mountains of her Utah home while the opening "The Gift" is playful and cheery, with notes scattering like leaves blown by an autumn wind, dancing in a blaze of red and gold. McLaughlin's penchant for allowing a track to evolve through tempo and mood changes is present on "A Deeper Understanding" which migrates from a contemplative opening prologue to a mildly frenetic exploration of upper and lower registers, winding down again only to re-escalate with even more drama. This same evolution also occurs on "Heartbroken," (to a lesser degree, but it is there) and this really is a signature move on the part of McLaughlin to have a song morph as it progresses, in a way mirroring how, as individuals, we move from one emotion to another as our life moments affect us. Our state of being is seldom static, and McLaughlin's intimate music portrays this—moods rise and fall, sometimes suddenly, and sometimes so gradually that it's almost imperceptible to us.
Despite how some songs do feature dramatic moments and shifts in tone, tempo, and mood, I found Life to be among McLaughlin's warmer and gentler recordings. The first time I played it, in the background as I worked at my university job, I found myself now and then thinking "Wow, she has really mellowed out!" Upon close, intent listening I heard those moments where she cuts loose (such as the mid-point of "Guilty Pleasures"), but as always, McLaughlin's technique is so solid that even though, from a purely subjective and personal taste perspective, I prefer quieter piano music, it's hard to find fault with her playing. There is always the distinct impression that she is wholly committed to her music and that her songs evolve in an organic fashion, not through any artificial need to "inject" passion. I've written before that Michele McLaughlin is a "heart on her sleeve" artist and Life epitomizes that. I don’t know of many artists, regardless of the instrument they play, as willing to bear their heart and soul so thoroughly and convincingly. The music on Life is, well, the music of life, or at least one woman's life. Really listen to it and you will doubtless come to know Michele McLaughlin as more than just a recording artist, as she gives you a window into what has shaped her so far in her personal journey to the here and now.
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 2/2/2017