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Mo Kenney, Gabrielle Papillon and Jessie Brown make the personal the priority on the year’s best records.
Mo Kenney is reserved and unassuming, a quietly quick wit. She saves it for the stage, as the saying goes—her demeanour is not one of meekness or deference to any of the men in her band, but of a measured confidence that borders on laconic until she leans into her guitar, a 1965 Mustang she had painted powder-blue. Her playing evokes all the cheesy guitar words—”rips,” “shreds,” “wails”—but really it’s astonishingly dexterous and decidedly modest.
On September 29 Kenney released The Details, her third album with Joel Plaskett producing, and it is something new for her—scrappier and more electric, but also weirder. There are 14 songs; only two creep past three minutes, and five are under two minutes, punk-style.
“There’s a lot of records that have short songs like that, that I really like; that it kind of transports me to a different world, it’s not just like regular songs all the way through,” she says over a beer, flagging Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand and Seth Smith’s New Problems as examples.
She demoed most of the songs—some have a Sufjan Stevens-like voice-memo quality—before heading into The New Scotland Yard with Plaskett last year. “I’m not comfortable that easily with people,” she says, “so it’s nice to feel comfortable doing that, something so personal.” [READ MORE]
Somewhere along the way, Kenney finds herself dazed and broken in a place that not many people find their way back from. “Unglued,” with its breezy sway, is likely the most summery song put to tape about being fed up with your own messy self. “I Can’t Wait” recalls the gauzy dreamscapes of Yo La Tengo with a hushed and grateful understanding that as bad as things are, it’s not the end of the world. But it’s not necessarily smooth sailing from there, as Kenney struggles to stay optimistic with “Lights Out,” and sings about getting clocked in the face at a bar by some meathead during “Punchy.” Still, she can’t help but find the hilarity in getting slugged, slyly laughing through her bloody teeth the whole time.
Finally, she arrives in less troubled seas, closing softly on the sparse, clear-minded “Feelin’ Good.” The storms weathered to get there may be the kind that leave lasting scars (or at least a few post-bar stitches), but with clear skies on the horizon, Kenney wears those scars as a reminder of what she’s been through, and the kind of seasons in hell she’s capable of enduring. Her latest is a record of all those storms and the routes and detours and trials of pushing through them while keeping her sense of humour gracefully intact. By turns rowdy, reflective, brave, funny, and deeply honest, it signals an already accomplished songwriter coming fully and completely into her own as an artist. Produced by Mo Kenney and Joel Plaskett, The Details vividly documents Kenney’s fight to survive her own worst enemy—herself.