Carrington MacDuffie, a New York native, has lived and performed all over the United States (New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin) and recently released her debut EP “Only An Angel”. MacDuffie, widely recognized for her voiceover work, originally attended Johns Hopkins University, yet left the United States to backpack across Europe before finishing her degree between Harvard University and Boston University. “MacDuffie’s lifelong involvement in poetry, together with her newfound success as a voice actor and spoken word performer shaped her lyrical development, bringing a mix of subtlety and vividness to her singing and her songs. Her transition to the Americana music scene, while a significant diversion from her previous work, still carries the poetic fuel that feeds her lyrical fire”, her biography states. Enjoy our review of “Only An Angel”, as well as an interview with MacDuffie below!
‘Only An Angel’ opens Carrington MacDuffie’s EP of the same name with swaths of reverb and ambience, spoken, breathy vocal parts, and memorable choruses. MacDuffie, an alto, has a unique vocal tone, delivering a spoken word performance more than a strict sung style (aside from the choruses, which were sung and performed skillfully, for the most part). This raw, laid-back recording was very loose in regards to band cohesiveness and vocal pitch. The writing and production is strong, and the inclusion of banjo and a slide guitar was an intelligent decision. The guitar’s solo later in the song showcases versatility and technique, and the bridge is identified by the intelligent movement chord-wise. The ending rhyme of the opening spoken word section resolves in a weird way rhythmically; this is a strong opener overall which needs improvement to have optimal impact. ‘Fly Away’ has a great island feel which is extremely transportive, yet the lyrics are very basic and dumbed-down. The vocal performance again leaves more to be desired, but thankfully the backing band is rocking now, and even though they could still be tighter as a unit, the instrumentation is very good. The country and Americana influences/styles mesh well, and this song is again fairly memorable, just like the first. The interesting melody of the pre-choruses was the highlight for me, although the basic choruses that followed were less impressive. The unique guitar parts work very well with the percussion and again showcase the guitarist’s skill and proficiency. The solo, which sounded as if it was played on a baritone or Bass VI guitar, was too basic and should’ve been played using an electric guitar for consistency’s sake. The song has a good feel, using dissonance sparsely to keep listeners guessing instrumentally while allowing them to follow along in real-time, and the backing vocal parts in the later choruses were great. The song progresses nicely, moving from fairly basic to additional parts that added depth to the same parts that were heard before. ‘Hot Sun of the Summer’ opened with low lead vocals, obvious lyrical content, and backing whispers at the end of each line in the verse. Much of the pre-chorus is commendable aside from the end of pre-chorus, as the vocals are no longer supported by instrumentation and do not sound as appealing on their own. The chorus is much too basic for me; it features a solid melody but does not contain the best vocal performance or lyrical content. Instead of humming, I’d like to hear lyrics to back up what’s going on in the verses; this was a part that could’ve been greatly expanded upon. The vocal harmonies and guitar parts at the beginning of the second verse were special, as was the second verse in general, especially regarding MacDuffie’s vocal performance. I would’ve liked to hear more support from the end of the verse into the pre-chorus; the song should’ve gone right into the chorus instead of the second half of pre-chorus again (end on ‘walking down, to the water’; that’s where the chorus should start each time, as currently there is too much of a lead in, without enough going on), and should’ve grown larger in sound as the chorus went out and the lead guitar came in. The third verse is great, the production on this track outstanding. The basic drum parts, which didn’t enter until after 50 seconds in, could be enhanced, could drive the song more, and could be mixed better. There were also additional parts in the later choruses that were again strong; without them, the other choruses seem to lack something.
‘Red Eye’ opens with an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, the mandolin doubling the lead acoustic line. The great musicianship of MacDuffie’s band is again evident (aside from the song’s bridge, which added nothing complimentary); the drums are more in charge here, directing the tempo and feel of the song, and the vocals work well. The chorus vocal performance could be better, yet her vocal tone here is better; it seems that most notes are a stretch, many of them barely reaching pitch, and the chorus was way too simple for my liking, as it seemed like the song was bounced without the second half of the chorus (due to the non-existent vocals and the lack of any further development lyrically). Thankfully, MacDuffie emits lots of emotion, using abstract and somewhat ironic lyrical content to keep the attention of listeners. This song doesn’t progress as much as the others in any way, shape, or form; if it progressed more, featured a better vocal performance, had additional parts throughout (especially in the choruses), and ended the way it currently does, it would be an impressive song. ‘Stand Below Heaven’ is incompatible with itself; while the choruses and instrumental performances were standout, the verse vocals and lyrics were shaky and disappointing. The improved vocals in the choruses are a welcome change, and overall this song features one of the better choruses on the album. The hi-hat work by the drummer could be cleaner, and the claps could be less stale and more on-time. Why are the claps so prominent in the mix? As long as you, the listener, don’t focus on the claps, you’re alright, as they are incredibly unnecessary and only detract from the song’s feel. As with much of MacDuffie’s material, this song gets better as it continues. The lead-in to the bridge was outstanding, as was the instrumental play during the bridge; while this doesn’t last long, it makes way for an incredible exit out of this section and back into the chorus, a change that made an incredible impression on me as one of the best written parts on the whole album. This is what I want to hear more of! Out of one of the later choruses, the verse comes back in, this time with additional vocals that become more direct and aggressive leading into the final chorus. The song closes appropriately but still remains a contradiction in my book. ‘My Favorite Place In Texas’ has a great opening feel and is one of the better, more lyric-focused offerings from MacDuffie. This opening section would be much better off with a vocal melody as the focus overtop the instrumentation. As the verse progresses each line becomes much more unique and expansive than the last, the song, the album’s finale, telling one of the clearer stories on the album. The pre-chorus is outstanding and lyrically-important to the song, adding to the story foundationally, but also to the musical story. The chorus isn’t bad, but wasn’t a strong point either, as it is very cliche and features overdone chord progressions. The chorus was a cop-out in my opinion, as it didn’t fit lyrically or structurally; thankfully the chorus exits to make room for the entrance of an intelligent bridge, which is at first darker, then melodic and technical, the vocals expanding on the lyrical content and growing on the listener with time. I get the whispering now, which re-enters as the song closes, yet I’m still not it’s biggest fan, as the same effect could have been completed with a simple vocal melody, which would’ve fit more fluidly, in my opinion.
The first half performances in each of MacDuffie’s songs needs to be stronger. Everything, vocally, could be better and improved on this album, as the vocals are the album’s limiting factor: the backing vocals (additional parts and harmonies needed), lead vocals (needs a more definitive purpose and direction, as well as a more refined sense of pitch and delivery, especially in the verses), and the melodies (alternating melodies to add diversity). Each of MacDuffie’s tracks seem to get better as they go on, and she does a wonderful job using positive repetition to highlight her main points and emotions. Each of these tracks is likable and contains memorable moments, but they could be extremely likable with more work. The instrumental play is consistently spectacular throughout, and aside from the minor drum improvements I’ve mentioned there was nothing to be corrected. MacDuffie would benefit greatly, vocally, in terms of directness and confidence, as each of the other instruments are solid and completely on point in terms of tone, confidence, and performance. For what they are, the songs work very well; all of these are great demos and awesome compositions with very good backing instrumentation. The vocals could be expanded on greatly and could be much improved, and that is the great fault in the record; as an EP, “Only An Angel” is promising, showing incredible signs of potential, yet with the promise of potentially even so much more in the future with added practice and effort. I would love more lyrical depth and to hear better, more confident vocal performances, and a direct tone and delivery from MacDuffie on future projects.
Could you tell us about your band and how you all met and began performing and writing music together?
“At the moment my band is an idea that can change at any moment. At its most concrete, it’s a loose collection of musicians all involved in different projects. I met the drummer, Ron Erwin, when I came to Austin to explore the music scene, and through him I met many veteran roots players from the Austin scene and beyond. I visited some studios, and Moonhouse, Chris Gage’s studio, was the right place at the right time. I’d been keeping an ear out for musicians who sparked my interest, and when I was ready to record I invited in various players and we put it together from the ground up. I’d already written all the songs — which I chose because I thought they would work well for an Americana sound — and then all the players had a tremendous amount of input into arrangements and parts. I made certain requests about what I wanted to hear, but they’re so damn good, all they have to do is play. The songs came out really relaxed. I got a lot of wonderful creative assistance and it was really fun (overall). So far, for this record, all of my performances have been for the camera. I made a music video for ‘Only an Angel’, and I’ve been making videos about myself and of cover songs for YouTube.”
What can you tell us about the music scene of Austin, Texas?
“It’s the most vibrant live scene I’ve ever been around. This town is about music, not the music business, and that makes for a really creative mentality. There are all different styles, but it’s predominantly roots-oriented. There are constant festivals and events, but ironically, in the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’, all the proceeds go to the city and the businesses, and the musicians hardly get paid at all; people have fun though!”
What life experiences and events led to the writing and recording of your new album “Only An Angel”?
“The classic subjects of romance and heartbreak I suppose, and the atmosphere of different places I’ve lived and traveled to. Overall, the challenge of stepping back and getting some kind of perspective on it all.”
What was it like working with engineer Chris Gage on this project?
“It was a great pleasure to work with Chris. He’s a very calm, smooth personality, and an extremely facile musician, a natural born talent who communicates really well. I took a lot of his advice, because Americana is a style I haven’t worked in before and I was constantly coming into new territory. He lent a velvety but honest guiding hand. Of course as an artist I stray outside the conventions of the genre, so I was always balancing between learning the musical style and being true to my vision by following my instincts despite the oddness of my choices.”
Is “Only An Angel” your first production credit, or have you produced albums previously?
“Though this is not my first production credit, it is my first album release! I co-wrote and co-produced an LP of somewhat esoteric spoken-word pieces set to music and sound, “Many Things Invisible”, which was released as an audiobook by Blackstone Audio, and was a finalist for 2 Audie Awards for production and originality in 2009 (available on my website). The pieces wander deep into the psyche and kind of leave the listener stranded there, so it’s cool if that’s a place you like to be, but as for songs, this is a debut.”
What artists or bands influenced the songs on this release?
“I have so many influences it’s hard to know where to begin! Guy Clarke, Bobbie Gentry, The Police, Neil Young, Harry Belafonte, Gillian Welch, Donovan, Laurie Anderson, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Eno, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen — the list goes on. Inspiration from all quarters!”