Michele McLaughlin found her field of dreams, and it has 88 keys.
Drawn to the piano from a young age, McLaughlin was playing in front of school mates at the age of five and composing by the age of eight. Blessed with a musical ear, McLaughlin inhaled melodies and breathed them in ebony and ivory. McLaughlin briefly took piano lessons, but eschewed the structure of formal instruction. For the most part, she taught herself by listening to and copying other composers. Validation came in 2000, when after much pestering from her Mom; McLaughlin created a cassette of her music. The feedback received from this experience led McLaughlin to set up her own home recording studio and get serious about making music for others to hear. Fifteen albums on, and McLaughlin has become a powerhouse in the new age/instrumental world, with awards and/or acknowledgments including the Independent Music Awards Song of the Year; and Whisperings Solo Piano Radio Album of the Year. McLaughlin’s latest effort, Undercurrent, is a powerful and moving cycle of 13 songs that demand your attention.
McLaughlin is a new age composer with a pop musician’s heart, writing in almost a singer/songwriter style. It’s therefore not surprising to be occasionally reminded stylistically of pop recordings as you pass through Undercurrent. The opening track, “11,000 Miles”, carries an air of Billy Joel in its straight ahead musicality. It’s a pop anthem, unrestrained by subtlety but thoroughly enjoyable. There’s more nuance to “Living in Awe”, which has an emotional, if not dramatic build. The early trend on the album is not toward finesse, but almost to a power songwriting aesthetic. Even the waterfall-like chorus of “Full of Love” carries this impetuosity, like a child seeing new wonders of the world for the first time.
It isn’t until “The Space Between” where we catch glimpses of McLaughlin’s more pensive side. As she moves into the second part of the song, however, McLaughlin’s muse storms back with a rush, pushing with an impatient insistence the story she has to tell. She steps back for “Undercurrent”, but even here the quiet surface is deceptive, and the listener is soon caught up in her musical pull. “Starstuff” makes no bones about its push, but McLaughlin seems to draw down the intensity on “Never Give Up”. There’s a singular beauty to this piece, which reflects in grace and subtlety the depth of emotion it represents. A sort of quietude pervades “Evolution”. You might expect that this song would follow its own title and evolve into something louder or grander, and to a degree it does, but it is a gradual slide up the scale that shows tremendous finesse.
“On My Own” showcases McLaughlin at her very best, with melody, finesse and lyric grace fully integrated. This transitions into “Melody in Motion”; starting as a plaintive waltz but becomes an aggressively melodic piece of musical prose. McLaughlin’s cascading piano style is imperative and impulsive and utterly without reserve. A sonic code arrives with “Stepping Stones”, a pensive-yet-spritely meditation that’s pretty and refined. McLaughlin closes out with “Synesthesia”, a quietly impatient number that rolls over and over itself without a sense of where it’s going until it arrives.
Michele McLaughlin impresses with “Undercurrents”. Her compositional style is impetuous, inpatient and often lacks a sense of subtlety, but it is also ultimately inspired. McLaughlin isn't afraid to be herself. She wears her heart on her sleeve and she touches listeners with her musical honesty. It might not be for everyone, but if you get it then you’ll find something to like here.
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)