Playing Favorites

El McMeen

Piney Ridge Music, 1996

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Not long after reviewing the latest release from fingerstyle guitarist Larry Pattis, I remembered I had another disc from El McMeen (with whom Pattis has been touring recently) waiting for me in the Pierce Memorial Archives. So, to El, sorry it's taken me so long to get to Playing Favorites.

This 1996 release is a slight change of pace for McMeen, who may be best known to faithful "DV" readers for his Celtic fingerstyle guitar work (including his take on songs from the late Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan). While there are some traditional songs on Playing Favorites which feature McMeen in a style familiar to most listeners, he takes the bold step of playing some more modern selections and making them sound like they always belonged on the acoustic guitar. What's even more interesting is that they so overpower the traditional songs, that the style that McMeen is known for seems to suffer a bit.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Oh, don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't want to hear McMeen's takes on songs like "Blind Mary" and "The Fairflower Of Northumberland" (the former being one of two Carolan songs that McMeen re-works). In fact, "Blind Mary" is the perfect way for McMeen to open this album, a collection of his own favorite songs re-worked for his playing style. McMeen's playing can still move me nearly to tears when it catches me just right, and these songs are prime examples of his power.

Yet they sometimes seem out of place when intermixed with acoustic versions of "What A Wonderful World," "The Wind Beneath My Wings" and "Desperado," amongst others. Even if you've grown up listening to a particular version of a song which, in your mind, is the definitive version, McMeen makes strong arguments with his own takes on these songs. Yes, "The Wind Beneath My Wings" is incredibly overplayed on adult-contemporary radio, but McMeen brings a sense of freshness to the song with his gentle picking and harmony. Yes, "Guantanamera" is a song that can drive me up the walls thanks to the Muzak versions I grew up with; McMeen's is like a drink of ice water on a hot day, giving this song a whole new lease on life in my book.

Even a song like "Desperado," which had a gentle-yet-rough edge on the original by The Eagles, is turned into a gentle number in the hands of McMeen, almost becoming a thoughtful lullaby. The interesting factor is not that McMeen is able to turn these songs into fingerstyle guitar pieces; the interesting factor is how he keeps the soul of the original songs alive while creating a whole new skeleton for them.

And yet I still can't quite shake the feeling that I miss McMeen's normal modus operandi - the same mixture of traditional folk songs with the occasional modern-day marvel thrown in - that I've become accustomed to since discovering McMeen on a Rounder compilation. Granted, McMeen's discography has plenty of these kind of releases, and Playing Favorites is a relaxing collection of tunes that further demonstrates McMeen's mastery of the guitar, even if it leaves me longing for more of the Celtic side of McMeen's music. Just call me traditionalist, I guess.

For more information or to order this disc, please visit El McMeen's web site.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2002 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Piney Ridge Music, and is used for informational purposes only.