Sumner McKane ~ Select Visual History

sumner mckane select visual historyI was recently given a two volume set on the history of the British Isles; the first part covered everything up to 1901 whilst the latter covered just the 20th Century. Yet this volume was a mere 150 pages shorter than the former. Now, the years following 1901 were quite busy, what with wars and the like but it seems a slightly unbalanced approach to take but it is pretty obvious that much of this skewing was down to the fact that much more of the last hundred years or so was captured, in print, on film and in photographs. It’s therefore much easier to paint a comprehensive picture of recent events, wherever you may be.

Whilst much of what we know of previous centuries comes from the wealthy – because they were the only ones who could write – improved education means that more recent generations of formerly overlooked classes can express themselves, even if its medium is just a tumblr site. Photographers could document these lives giving as much prominence to the poor as the rich unlike the painters of old who pretty much relied on wealthy patrons and naturally spent their time documenting the 1% of the time.

As seems to ever be the way with these things, photographs of the poor and disenfranchised from the dawn of the camera onwards are still marginalised. Too posed, too forced, the critics say; you can’t get a true concept of what life was like back then just by looking at these people standing awkwardly whilst their image is captured. And yet, at least they are being commemorated in some small way, so their images can be discovered afresh once more, and this might provide a little inspiration for subsequent generations. Certainly, it has worked for Sumner McKane, as the titles on Select Visual History suggest; one can easily imagine the faded photographs that provided inspiration for a track titled “Small Canadian Mill Town Next to a Frozen River”. I’ve associated McKane’s previous works with being directly drawn from his own experiences, but given it’s been five years since his last non-soundtrack record, perhaps he sensed that he could carry over the approach of his soundtrack work by working to still images rather than moving ones.

Musically, though, it’s not the radical step into old-timey folk I suspected it might be and McKane doesn’t attempt to capture what might have been heard as the shutter snapped; instead he sticks with his mostly relaxed, pastoral rock which does at times step perilously close to the AOR of Dire Straits or Chris Rea; the chugging rhythm guitars and sensible drumming in the middle of “The Bloody Bozeman” might find McKane propelled into the world of ‘driving music’ radio. Elsewhere he’s more impressionistic, in a Metheny-esque manner, and whilst McKane is not a man afraid of the guitar solo he usually does it as subtly as possible; no shredding pyrotechnics here, the playing is all in service of creating a cohesive soundworld with drums and piano adding to the guitar-centric palette that is used here.

It’s not always easy to connect the music to the visual history to which McKane nods in the album title; this often feels a little too smooth to capture the rough and ready nature of the subjects in the photographs; it’s more like the contrived portraits that the travelling cameraman captured in his portable studio rather than images of documentary makers. But that’s only a small gripe; taking the music on its own is the best way to approach Select Visual History and there’s much to enjoy, particularly the strong final trio, “From Amity…” through to “Labrador”. McKane manages to convert an interesting proposition into an album that could strike a chord with a much wider audience; people who might be swept along by his accessible compositions and bright production into a world they never previously considered. (Jeremy Bye)

Available here

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