ALBUM REVIEW: Angie McMahon proves buzz is deserved on “Salt”

The buzz around Angie McMahon keeps getting louder. The Australian songwriter burst onto the scene in 2013 when she won an Australian telecom company-sponsored contest to open for Bon Jovi around the continent. Gigs with the Pixies, Father John Misty, the Shins, Alanis Morissette, and others followed; she won the Grulke prize at SXSW this year for Best Developing International Act, and she’s set to open dates for Hozier in the fall. 

McMahon would be forgiven if her busy touring schedule left her without time to make music, but she was somehow able to write and record Salt, her debut LP, in between shows. It offers hints of female contemporaries – Angel Olsen’s timeless, ghostly voice, Courtney Barnett’s knack for confession and observation, Cat Power’s gift for manipulating tension – in a stripped-down, indie rock package that amplifies the impact and clarity of its songs.

Salt places McMahon’s songwriting and singing talents on display with minimal embellishment. The latter is her true calling-card, earning comparisons to Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. Spare, plaintive material, like opener “Play The Game,” “Push,” “Mood Song,” and “If You Call” get plenty of mileage out of her rich, sometimes multi-tracked voice, warm, reverb-heavy guitars, occasional drums, and not much else. These songs seethe instead of exploding, wringing power from their denial of catharsis.

“And I Am a Woman” takes similar cues but strikes a deeper nerve through a vocal performance filled with palpable hurt and frustration. McMahon told Brooklyn Vegan the song “started as a heated conversation, but I had to finish it on my own and make it into music, because I didn’t feel like talking, I felt like yelling.” It’s a no-holds-barred look at “all [the] things that our society teaches us about bodies, spaces, choices, feelings, safety, that we have to question and unlearn and do better with…I loved writing this, because I didn’t have to hold anything in.” It’s a true stunner; it and breakup playlist ready “Soon” are major highlights, balancing hope and pain without being too obvious in their methods.

While undoubtedly rooted in the singer-songwriter tradition, Salt transcends the genre’s easiest tropes – it may be introspective, but it isn’t quiet. There is an anthemic quality to the album sometimes best exemplified by its heavier tracks: “Keeping Time” makes an insistent rocker out of a placid, breezy groove; “Missing Me” has an easy melody that belies a matter-of-fact anger; “Slow Mover” is questioning, hopeful, fiery, and assured in the space of a little over three minutes; “He thinks we could make it work but only when he’s drunk / and you think you could help me swim, but I’ve already sunk” is both a perfect kiss-off and an incisive bit of self-incrimination.

“Pasta” is another high point – a Courtney Barnett-esque bit of finding profundity in the mundane. “And I spend so much time eating pasta / Though I’m probably allergic, and other people seem to move so much faster / I wonder why I’m feeling lonely / When there’s plenty of ways to be alone” sings McMahon. “It’s about being tired and being down on yourself, but it’s easier for me to be like, ‘This a song about pasta’ [when playing live],” McMahon explained to W Magazine. The song benefits from its downhill momentum, its lyrics hitting hard through an energetic, rocking arrangement.

Salt lays out McMahon’s playbook – raw emotions, loud riffs, simmering tension, an enviable gift for boiling complicated feelings down to essential, simple observations – for the world to see. Familiar but without truly obvious analogs, Salt confirms the longstanding hype. McMahon has delivered a strong debut that signals her as a talent to watch.

Words by Andrew Ledford