On his new release, 3AM, Joe McMahon captures the feel of being very much alone with your thoughts in the wee hours of the morning. And he does it in very simple style, relying only on quiet keyboard melodies and minimal electronic treatment. In this way, the melodies become thoughts and feelings; the washes become the atmosphere–sometimes literally, as with the lapping of water on “Reflections in the Lagoon.” This is a very intimate and emotional work–potently so. McMahon has created a disc that takes on two very different identities depending on how you listen. It’s not just a matter of hearing more detail on a focused or in-headphones session. It’s that the work takes on a wholly different character. Played quietly, in the open, it’s a keyboard disc that has wisps of other sound floating around it. Melody takes the forefront. Up close, the atmospheres play a more vital role, the keys then existing within a well-realized aural space. The personal impact of the pieces is stronger. The difference is not easy to describe, but it’s very easy to hear. A prime example of McMahon’s detail work is the interesting touch running under “Traffic Lights, No Traffic.” It’s like he’s placed a secondary song, for lack of a better word, underneath his thoughtful piano melody, in a key that’s just short of complementary to the main one. The secondary sound has a twanging, metallic tone. In places they match up, more or less, creating an iffy harmony. In others, the clash creates a very rough texture, like an intruding thought that won’t go away. It’s an aggressive choice on McMahon’s part, and he makes it work. On two of his tracks McMahon breaks out an electric piano that brings up reminders of Steve Halpern’s music in both tone and style. In “The Sprinklers Are Running,” a slow bass line walks just behind the melody, humming a little ominously to itself. Subtle washes form a misty background. On “Empty Sidewalks,” my favorite track, a deep and thoughtful melancholy runs through the music. Pauses between notes become the stillness of a deserted night. Trilling electronics work their way through the piece. There is a wonderful sense of slight waywardness, that place between needing to keep walking the night until things sort themselves out in your head, and knowing that you should just go home and sleep it all off. McMahon plays with his theme on “Awake Too Late,” taking the listener to a slightly disoriented, in-and-out-of-sleep state of staggered and staggering sounds, odd sensations and a little off-kilter sound-play.
This disc has been a pure delight to go through several times. The keyboard work, especially the electric piano, is well-played and does a great job of carrying the emotional content. The electronics are meted out on an as-needed basis, perfect in the way they augment not just the music but the feel overall. This is my first exposure to McMahon’s work; I immediately went back and downloaded his previous disc as well. 3AM is a great release.
Available from Earth Mantra.