Kim McLean Rapunzel's Escape Overview/Liner Notes/Track by Track By PHIL SWEETLAND Music and Radio contributor The New York Times Rapunzel, in Grimm's Fairy Tales, was a lovely maiden imprisoned in a tower by an evil witch. In her loneliness, Rapunzel sings to herself, and her songs are eventually heard by a prince. The only way for the prince to reach Rapunzel and eventually free her is to use her long, golden hair as a ladder into the tower. There is indeed a song about Rapunzel here, but it never contains the phrase "Rapunzel's Escape." Kim McLean instead chose that phrase as the title of the album and we see that perhaps she's as much escaping to something as from something. She's long been one of music's most gifted songwriters and producers for other artists, but Rapunzel allows Kim's own remarkable gifts as an artist to take center stage. Perhaps the story began back when her music education was cruelly halted by an eating disorder that nearly cost Kim her life and forced her to withdraw soon after she was accepted to the elite piano conservatory at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Recently, McLean received both her Bachelor's and Master's degrees with honors in just five-and-a-half years from Trevecca University, gaining her escape 'to' that long overdue education and a position as Adjunct Professor of Songwriting. Kim McLean's Appalachi-Groove Style Kim McLean's original musical delivery is unique, self-described as "Appalachi-groove." Her heritage combines Irish, Cherokee, and Appalachian strains, all of which magically appear in her songs. As a little girl, she adored listening to her grandmother - a pianist and songwriter herself - play the piano, teaching Kim everything from Chopin to Fats Waller's boogie-woogie. As a result McLean's style, sometimes beautifully summarized as "Mountains-Meet-Memphis," showing up in the fact that she's not only written several Country hits but also recently contributed a song to Bettye LaVette's (The First Lady of Soul) Grammy-nominated Blues album. In the late Sixties, we began to hear about what was then a new concept in Pop music, the "singer/songwriter." James Taylor, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King emerged as early superstars of that genre. Kim has some Joni influences, along with Tom Petty and J.J. Cale, ...but perhaps it's better to call her a "Songwriter/Singer" than the other way around. Her songs have always come first, and everything else stems from that creative process. Rapunzel's Escape - The Musicians One of the joys of Rapunzel's Escape is the opportunity to hear many of Nashville's top session players at their very best. Yudkin combines with Russ Pahl (steel/Dobro), John D. Willis (electric guitar/mandolin/banjo), Catherine Marx and Michael Rojas (keyboards), David Hungate (bass), and Eddie Bayers Jr. (drums) to provide the perfect backgrounds for McLean's simple, yet complex, songs and her own percussive acoustic-guitar work. Rapunzel's Escape Cut by Cut It's almost as if the 14 songs on Rapunzel's Escape came from 14 different albums or 14 different artists - but happily we find them all in once place. Great songs have come from Kim's pen and soul for years, and now we get to hear them as they came to her, the songwriter's rendition of her own creations, as she lived them in Rapunzel's Escape. 1. Ain't No Glory on the Ground (Kim McLean/Kevin Fisher) When we hear the opening line of this hooky rocker, as Kim sings "life took a nosedive late last fall," we figure we may be in for some tough times. But instead, this is a song and a story of triumph, as the singer escapes the heartaches and limits of the ground and says, "Pardon me if I fly." John D. Willis's electric guitar is a perfect counterpart to McLean's vocal, especially in the second verse, in a very Radio-friendly song that would make a terrific single. The production, combining electric and acoustic guitars, layered vocals, and tons of hooks, is influenced as much by The Beatles as by Nashville. 2. Born To Be Happy (Kim McLean/Devon O'Day) McLean's songs feature stark contrasts, and "Born To Be Happy" is an excellent example as the minor-key verses are subdued and longing, but the major-key choruses are joyful and rocking. 3. Rapunzel (Heart Of Heavy Stone) - By Kim McLean/Lisa Brokop In "Rapunzel," McLean and the fine Canadian singer and songwriter Lisa Brokop craft a Pop-flavored gem about self-doubt and eventual acceptance and self-confidence. There's a fascinating shift in this song, from a first verse rooted in fantasy and the Rapunzel story to a second in which a mature singer separates fact from fiction and recognizes that the reality can be exciting too. Musically, this is one of Kim's best pieces, especially in the unusual climbing chords of the chorus. Lyrically, her image of counterbalancing life forces - accepting the strength that the "heart of heavy stone" provides - is another wonder. 4. Beautiful Goodbye (Kim McLean/Jennifer Hanson) This was a Top 20 Country debut single in 2002 on Capitol Nashville for Hanson, and now at last we get to hear Kim's own version of it. It's sort of like finally getting to read the book on which a movie was based; we hear far more in the song than ever before. 5. All We Ever Find (Kim McLean/Liz Rose) "All We Ever Find" is a bittersweet ballad, emphasizing the importance of living in the moment. The singer plays the part of the listener's counselor or pastor here, urging them to "say exactly how ya feel." We must take note here of the understated arrangement, which is such a pleasure to hear when we are so often bombarded with heavy, pop-driven production nowadays. Instead, Kim's productions have a real sense for what to leave out as well as for what to leave in at the studio. The resulting arrangements serve as a perfect complement for Kim's plaintive, always pleasing vocals. 6. Let Go Let Love (Kim McLean/Phil Swann) This song opens with a mysterious-sounding guitar, setting the stage for a verse that asks many questions and provides few answers. The answers that do come are in a big sing-able chorus that shows off her gift of commercial songwriting. A fun thing is the patterns and doubles within the song ("flyin' or fallin," "a whisper, a need, a reaction, a beautiful emotion"). This is sophisticated writing, but like all the great ones they make it sound so easy. 7. Cracks in the Concrete (Kim McLean/Lisa Brokop) This one's rockin' Country, with mandolins, electric guitars, and drums providing the beat. That's fitting for a "road song" celebrating freedom and escape. The singer's just been through a tough break, and decides to get over it by hitting the road. It's a good-natured tune about dealing with a hard realities, and McLean has as much fun singing it as we do hearing it. 8. Elisabeth (Kim McLean/Liz Rose) How do we explain the real life tragedy and blessings of a young girl who's both beaten the odds and been beaten by them during her short life? Is a life less worth living if there is less of it to live? Doctors told Elisabeth she'd never live to her sixteenth birthday, but she did. She finished school and heard this song sung around the world before she left us. "Elisabeth, you're a teacher and a saint," Kim sings, touching us the way Elton John's "Daniel" and Christopher Cross's "Think Of Laura," beautifully did with love and loss and triumph. Kim McLean is a story-singer, and this true story in song is a perfect example. 9. A Beautiful Day With You (Kim McLean/Wally Wilson) Kim explores the harsh realities here of today's world - from anorexic girls to homeless folks everywhere - and wonders "is this heaven or hell?" It's a good question, and a very good song with a unique drive and a fun chorus - "technically speaking, there's nothing worth keepin' but a beautiful day with you" - showing McLean at her quirky smiling best. Another subtle aspect of "Beautiful Day" is that in the end, the only solution to the world's grown-up problems is to act like a kid again. The final line, after all, is "I just want to play with you!" 10. Always Know (Kim McLean/Devon O'Day) Like much of Kim's best work, this song is in many ways a hymn. "Always Know" features one of McLean's musical specialties - phrasing. Lines like "each time a branch was bent" or "each time a moment's spent" provide such cool rhythmic shadings that she does almost without thinking, elevating her music to a higher place. 11. Break The Glass (Kim McLean/Jennifer Hanson) Nashville artists have written about alcoholism since the earliest days of Country and this song gives a new perspective on a very old and vexing disease. Kim tell the drinker in no uncertain terms that if he continues along the same path, he may be digging his own grave. "I can only do so much," they tell him, "only you can break the glass." 12. China (Kim McLean/Liz Rose) This is the most harrowing song on the album. It's the only waltz, and Jonathan Yudkin's string arrangement adds a warm blanket to this sad but uplifting song. "When I finally left, I left for me." When she did so, she left behind all the trappings of her earlier life - a comfortable house with fine China (the origin of the title), and memories of what once was a blessed love, and a nice neighborhood with lots of friends. Nowadays, as many marriages seem to end in divorce as don't, and a moving song like "China" figures to help countless folks cope with a situation that often seems impossible. Waltzes are all too rare these days, but Kim's musical trip to "China" makes us want to hear more. 13. Any Day (Kim McLean/Rick Ferrell) This is a pure rocker, with a cool Tom Petty-Fleetwood Mac-Bruce Springsteen feel like in "Badlands", nice and big. Once again on "Any Day," we see Kim McLean's amazing versatility. 14. Because God's Good (Kim McLean/Dwight Wiles/Phil Johnson) Church services often close with a prayer, so a musical prayer closes this terrific album. "Because" is a very funky song, with a strong R&B and Southern Gospel feel. But just as Elvis took Southern Gospel and fused it with popular styles, this one has lyrics that would fit into a hymnal but joins them with music that would fit in a dance club. As always, Kim sings with great confidence. And she should be confident. She's just made a sensational album!