|The Wild Hymns - The Wild Hymns
The Wild Hymns is the eponymous project originally intended to be either a solo album by singer-songwriter Megan Woodland Donley ( performing at the time as “Little Bird” with a back up band) or at the least a demo of her original songs. Working with York, Pennsylvania based sound-man/recording engineer/musician wunderkind Mike Couch saw the project bloom into both a full-fledged album of great merit, as well as a band to perform the songs with promise of more collaboration in the future.
The band’s sound touches many musical styles, but in the broader sense sits nicely into the Modern Folk/Americana genre with leanings toward Jazz and a touch of European gypsy music. Although the band’s sound can be described as a bit “Retro” (which to my ears means, in this case, well written, beautifully performed and recorded with no gimmicks or unnecessary studio frills), The Wild Hymns sound fresh, modern and very relevant. The album is a breath of fresh air in a musical world ( at least the so-called mainstream musical world) that puts artifice over heart and soul.
The album begins with a short but very sweet introduction to the album (Be My Only One (Interlude)). In this :39 second solo instrumental performed by Steel Guitar wizard Clem Foust, the stage is set for a musical journey consisting of songs, in the words of Donley, “exploring personal relationships, pondering life and love, soul searching and the desire to rise above angst and heartache to find love and grace”.
Be My Only One begins with folky finger picking , soon followed by the tasty drumming of Steve Witmer, jazzy fills of guitarist ( and husband of Ms. Donley) Jeff Hewitt, as well as the solid groove of bassist Chris Towsen and the aforementioned Foust on pedal steel guitar. Donley’s voice is perfect for the song and the understated groove the band is providing. On the second verse Donley is joined by fellow vocalist and co-writer ( as well as harmonica and percussion) Krystle Seitz. By the end of the first chorus the band has been introduced via a simple and very effective plea for love and commitment, the voices of Seitz and Donley blending and soaring in perfect harmony.
Where Does The Time Go, co-written by the band’s vocalists, continues the mellow vibe of the first song with a slight turn turn to and nod to classic Americana provided by the tasty steel guitar work.
Drop Your Burden finds the band changing gears with an upbeat minor key bluesy/jazzy tune. The song’s verses invite the listener to let go of sorrow and burdens, whether by losing them in a river or burying them in sand. The chorus morphs into a bouncy major affirmation that everything works out eventually, but ridding oneself of the weight of sorrow is the key to that end. An excellent vocal performance as well as seamless transitions between Hewitt’s masterful guitar solo and Foust’s warm and gooey steel solo make this a standout performance.
Tattoos and Chains has a Euro-cabaret/ jazzy feel to it. Again, the arrangement is smooth through the various sections of the song and shows off the virtuosity of the band. The vocals are front and center punctuated by funky bass and guitar riffs.
Bella Donna is a ballad describing a heart breaker with a poisonous effect on the objects of her affections and features the violin playing of guest musician Helena Protopapas.
The song 5 Dollars sends the listener into a mid-eastern flavored mid-tempo musical jaunt. The next piece Time Ain’t Real finds the band exploring country swing tinged territory with success. A smooth, sultry ballad All Through the night , a gospel- tinged I will Shine and the folky Little Bird close out the album with beauty, panache, heart, and soul.
Central Pennsylvania is and has been a veritable hotbed of musical excellence for many years. In particular York, Pennsylvania has produced many acts of note in many musical genres over the years. It is difficult to imagine that The Wild Hymns (both the band and album) won’t find a way into the musical universe to be enjoyed by people outside that part of the world. This album is an excellent mix of style, stellar vocals, very tasty controlled-yet-fiery playing, poignant songwriting, and organic warm production. I highly recommend this record to fans of folky, bluesy, jazzy, mellow music with a message that inspires as well as entertains.
There is no doubt in my mind that this record deserves and will garner national attention, or at the very least be a stepping stone to that well deserved recognition.