“I’ve got health insurance that only works if I die, oh but what if I live?”
A fair question, one whispered by Cameron McGill and left to linger above the elegant opening piano of ‘American Health Insurance’, the second single from his latest album, Gallows Etiquette.
The piano is stately, poised and deliciously vintage, he leans on the keys with both soulful force and a wry lightness of touch in the vocals. The song, while not being explicitly concerned with the issue, has struck a cultural chime in the era of the fiercely polarising Obamacare debate (framed variously as compassionate social reform aimed at granting affordable health care to millions of Americans vs. rapacious and dictatorially unconstitutional manoeuvres toward a neo-socialist agenda) and received press from the Chicago-Sun Times, BBC Radio 6 and was premiered on the Huffington Post.
McGill has said that while the song is not lyrically engaging directly with the debate, it expresses a certain alienation from American political and cultural life, written during the last presidential election, amidst an ugly and embattled confusion that prompted the question: “How do I even fit here anymore?”
“Lyrically, the album focuses on coming to an understanding of my place in America, something with which I find myself increasingly struggling to define. The good and bad parts: the wonderful luck of it all, the guilt and gratefulness, the reckless ambition, and the responsibility or lack thereof. These songs are my experience in it, my travels in it, my joys and failures with it, and my sick way of making sense of it all.”
Cameron McGill is a Chicago-based indie rocker who has previously toured and recorded with associates as Cameron McGill & What Army and he’s also a multi-instrumentalist member on the roster of Margo & The Nuclear So & So’s. Gallows Etiquette is released as a solo album and was made in collaboration with bassist Rodrigo Palma and drummer Charles Koltak, written entirely on the piano and mostly tracked as a 3-piece, and is self-released following a PledgeMusic.com funding campaign. He’s played in the past with the likes of Damien Rice and Martha Wainwright, and is also pals and occasionally performs with fellow Chicago rocker Ezra Furman, recently reviewed by acid stag.
‘Albatross’ begins the album with slick force, McGill’s initial murmur over dark bass building quickly to anguished blunt humour. (“I was jealous of your rough sex and your soft accent/A howl in the courtyard woke me up/and I couldn’t go back/Grab your cigarettes darlin’ and something to read/I’m finished on the typewriter baby clack-clack/I’ve punched out baby that’s that”) It’s the sound of someone using honesty to puncture malaise, someone tired of brooding and ready to move. The range of McGill’s voice is given full play, moving from bare whisper to a full and angry wail. The relative calm of the organs and sedate drums are periodically drowned by squalling discordant guitar.
‘Slow Vampire’ proceeds gently within an aura of soft menace, the ‘Slow Vampire’ in question being both Middle America and possibly a departed lover: (“I miss you already, I miss you proud/Well the bigots have you now/I guess they’ll never let you go”). The piano melody upon which this song is built sounds almost antique and twee, like something plucked from a 19th century gin house and smoothed in to the contemporary with McGill’s lyrics and restless arrangement. Several times this song breaks… pauses, before reprising with a slightly different mood, it plays with form and the lyrics flavour the genteel keys with something suitably dark and sharp. McGill has drawn comparisons with Randy Newman because of his piano-based songwriting and acidic twists of phrase and humour. For my money, this track is also reminiscent of Paul McCartney in places, that high voice capable of soul scream, the polite piano serving as a vehicle for themes pervaded by the generally unholy, and the frequently fucked-up.
‘That Los Angeles Mouth’ vies with ‘American Health Insurance’ and ‘Sucker Love’ as this album’s most emblematically crystalline highlight, its most consumable injection of McGill’s transcendentally ferocious songwriting poise. Sonically, there’s a ghost of Jeff Buckley in the vocals. Leonard Cohen and Charles Bukowski appear to inform the lyrics, sensually raw sexual imagery merges with a miasma of spiritual poison and disgust. (“I could be in Pismo fucking the hostess from Rosa’s/With a paper in the morning darlin’ I chose this/And coffee gets poured in and I’ll say when/Her bed was tall and pillared in a breath of ice/I won’t forget you offered your ass/that night in that ski resort/Your last sacrifice”). It’s a wandering yet somehow tightly crafted sojourn in to a very dark love, McGill is not afraid to peer in to a profoundly cracked mirror and then to cast its reflections in to recorded song. (“She made baby noises when she slept/And she ached like a harp when she cried/She went to confession just to ruin a priest/Her lipstick pink and shit, her breath bourbon and grease”)
‘Sucker Love’ is maybe this record’s most radio-friendly offering, tumbling piano licks over a tick-tock ride percussion, and a persuasive melody of rueful beauty. (“The trouble with ghosts is that they’re dead to me/and not that they haunt”)
Cameron McGill is also a published poet, aspiring novelist and part-time bouncer. The literary ability shines though in every song, the stanzas rich with imagery, character and word-play. ‘Gallows Etiquette’ closes with the initially hushed but jamming potent bloom of a track that is ‘Athena, Fate Isn’t Very Fair’. (“She was well-versed in the impolite sciences of the body/Said the dynasty starts here, so does the party/She smoked and waved her hands like a wand/My confidences disappeared, gone”). At heart, it’s a coolly retrospective love song, but with gentle sax and urbane piano underpinning McGill’s gorgeous voice, it proceeds to an echoing lament of real force. (“Bring me a beer I yelled from the bath/I got rough sex, white wine and her devil laugh/We were hungry then, but I wanted to quit/In the heat I felt for Reason,/And handles on anything that would open to it”)
This is an album of “reckless ambition” (a phrase McGill uses often in interviews), of faith and also a continuing personal interrogation of a lack of faith (both spiritual and political), containing moments of absolutely stunning grace and recurring episodes of a despair and rage that are so pointedly fixed in the lyrics as to be hard to know how to react to, for the performer and the audience. This bewilderment seems to be the point.
It’s an album of lounge piano, bar room piano, ballad and anthem piano, speakeasy sax, blues organ. A play of dagger-sharp ironic deadpan and raw screams, it’s an album built upon the piano, leaning against its structure of grace, and occasionally sleeping beneath it.
Cameron McGill is certainly fucked off with America (or with one of his other less abstract but equally corrosive muses, the beautiful women, dark, dangerous and unforgettably real, and he remains tonally ambivalent towards each to the point of screaming madness), with the divisions, with the bigots, the corruption, with a culture frequently bleak in its lack of imagination, its empty materialism and cruelly shallow media – but the point is that he also does not let himself off of any hook: the personal is always the cultural, all experience is innately translatable as a social litmus, he is always excoriating himself to a brutal clarity. This is a beautiful album and Cameron McGill is an artist who deserves your attention.