Singer-songwriter Doug McKean says he didn't set out to make a double album. When he started recording the songs that would appear on his two new CDs, Concerto for Second Fiddle and Unquiet, he just knew he had too much material for just one record.
"The 21-piece puzzle didn't fit together, but the two 10- and 11-piece puzzles fit together pretty well," McKean explains over a few happy-hour beers at the Harp, the Westside Irish pub where he's a regular. "I knew that going in. I didn't set out to make a huge statement double record. I just had a lot of songs stockpiled. I had a bunch of stuff I wanted to do and knew what I wanted to do with each record. I figured I might as well just do it all at once."
Concerto, which opens with the Richard Thompson-like "The Last Time" and features balls-to-the-walls rockers like the bitter break-up tune "Searchlight," is the kind of rootsy rock record you'd expect from McKean. A much more scattershot affair, Unquiet is a different animal altogether, punctuated by the distorted vocals of "Learning to Say No" and the twang of the Johnny Cash-like "Angel Tears."
"I think Concerto holds together pretty well," says McKean. "I don't think it's a weird one to get your head around. That's a pretty straightforward record. Unquiet moves around stylistically. I wanted it all to sound like it was coming from the same place, which thematically it is. It's really about how confusing the world is."
That central theme revolves around feelings of "guilt, fear and regret," as McKean puts it. His recent engagement, which he broke off prematurely, also fuels many of the songs. But, as he makes clear, the world is so screwed up that you can't point to any one thing as the source of confusion and alienation.
"When I was a kid, I thought people got more rational as they got older," he says in reference to the albums' theme. "I've noticed, if anything, that people get a little less rational as they get older. That's the overarching theme."
A Mansfield native, McKean has been working the local circuit steadily for the past 10 years, initially with punk upstarts the GC5, a local band that did everything "loud and fast" and toured heavily, putting out a handful of releases before imploding several years ago.
After the band broke up, McKean went in a different direction, jamming with Americana locals like the Whiskeyhounds and Rosavelt, while keeping active in the Pogues tribute band Boys From the County Hell.
In 2006, he released his first solo album, the self-released Heels Up. Despite some pretty rough production, the songwriting and musicianship on Heels comes through. For both Concerto and Unquiet, McKean paid more attention to production, recording at his friend Ryan Foltz's home studio. The differences are noticeable, and the vocals are much sharper.
"My background was in doing straightforward anthemic punk rock," says McKean. "I always enjoyed other stuff, but I wasn't capable of making a record like this 10 years ago. The last record was a transition, and these two are quite different from that. I demoed all these songs on acoustic guitar first. I set out to write simpler sounds with a certain classic feel. Listening to old folk music or later Nick Lowe or some of the really simple Bob Dylan songs - there's a simplicity to that stuff. I wanted to challenge myself to write a simple song that spoke really directly."