by Cole Kinsler (@dustetc)
Anna McClellan is a New York transplant and Omaha-native who, seemingly out of nowhere, released a stellar debut record on the small Portland-based tape label Majestic Litter. Fire Flames is a gorgeous (and thus far super-underappreciated) set of piano-driven folk songs. I first stumbled upon McClellan’s music at a show in Allston, MA where she opened for Rick Maguire (of Pile). Although geographically distant, the pair do share a common thread in their musical histories. Both Fire Flames and Pile’s You’re Better Than This were recorded and produced by Ben Brodin in Omaha, NE. Her set was an apt pairing with Rick’s, as both boast unique songwriting styles and powerful voices. Her performance clearly sparked an interest in many attendees, myself included. Upon further research, I found that McClellan is also a member of the Omaha pop band Howard. However, on her solo record, she appears to be following her own creative inclinations without hesitation.
A simple refrain begins title track “Fire Flames”, which ultimately builds into an affecting duet featuring Conor Oberst (also hailing from Omaha). It’s a song of yearning and realization. “I cannot think of anything I’d rather be/I just wanna be a part of that flame you see/It’s in me”. Drums, bass, and slide-guitar parts complement piano chords at the song’s climax. Oberst’s subtle harmonies suit the chorus well: “Fire blood and fire veins/and a firehouse and fire flames/It cannot be contained in all this silly mess we made”. McClellan writes about love with a certain purity that can be heard throughout the entire record. On “Let’s Be Quiet” she sings: “There’s nowhere else to go, nothing else to be done/I’ll stare in your eyes as this realization that I’m happy/to be silent in your arms babe/Let’s be quiet”. Lyrical themes are underlined by her powerful vocals.
The album also contains meditations on identity and wonderment. These questions are raised on tracks like “Pull the Pin”. “My God, son you’re so funny for thinking you could be the one who finally figures out the point of all this living/We’re an ocean of mystery and regret/Nothing can save you from the demons in your bed”. The song resolves with another reflection on desire. “Do you know what you are? Do I know what I want?/ Well I’d like to, and I’d like it to be you/and if it could be then it should be”. In this moment and others, McClellan is capturing a hyper-relatable sentiment of the human condition. We all have a deeply embedded appetite for meaning in life, and although we likely never come to a final answer; we find ways to create our own meaning. Many of these thoughts culminate in closing track “Midnight Storm”. McClellan sings of a night storm’s pouring rain and lightning keeping her up through the night. “All this lightning calling me to act/It won’t stop until something snaps”. The song unravels into a dream-like scene once the subject steps off a ledge into the giant storm. Ultimately, she is lost within it: “Now I don’t know where I am ...I just want more from myself/To be what it is that makes a person live a life/and do more than/more than that”. In the album’s final lines, the dreamer is overwhelmed by life’s unending storm, and craving more from it.
Fire Flames has a somewhat timeless quality to it- in that I wouldn't have been surprised if someone had told me it was written forty years ago. McClellan’s classical-leaning piano playing is effortless and vital throughout the record. The production is raw and clean, and Ben Brodin’s instrumental additions are subtle. Anna McClellan’s thoughtful songwriting and pure voice are the centerpieces here. A heavy-handed production approach would’ve been overbearing against these elements. In going solo, she has found an adept musical voice that is all her own.