If you’re looking for a dose of home recorded goodness, look no further than Rory McMillan’s newly released Doing the Best I Can (Selected Home Recordings 2005 – 2012). Now you may be asking yourself: who is this Rory McMillan, and why do I want to hear these home recordings of his? Apt questions, so let me assure you: you don’t know who Rory McMillan is. You probably haven’t seen his tweets, either, or heard of any of his previous band affiliations. That’s because Rory is just a dude playing some instrumental music at home, recording it for posterity, and deciding to release it in album format. Sure, he’s played in some bands around his native Knoxville, and had a hand at some different types of stuff (rock, folk, church music, etc), but on Doing the Best I Can, it’s all Rory. And what you get is, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, all the better for the heightened level of insularity.
Though a few of the tracks on Doing the Best I Can sport some vocals, McMillan is really at his best when creating eclectic little musical windows into what could be described as more feeling or visual than “song” per se. Rather than try to box in or over-complexicate his compositions, McMillan is content to let the myriad little ideas speak in a more monotone yet energizing cadence that works well with his downplayed musical sensibilities, and as such Doing the Best I Can is chock full of short, colorful compositions that seem ready made for film soundtracks and other segue ways. McMillan obviously has an ear for melody, and while some may accuse many of the tracks on Doing the Best I Can of being overly simplistic, the argument can also be made for a type of evergreen beauty in simplicity and dog-eared earnestness, the two biggest assets McMillan has going for him here.
Standout tracks such as “Dancing ‘Round the Campfire”, “Jazz and Nag Champa”, and “Song for the Setting Sun” have a really nice dated quality to them, stemming from what sounds like a McMillan’s heavy use of a Casio keyboard of some sort, with its pre-set tones and canned drumbeats. But rather than come off as totally cheesy, what arises in some of McMillan’s finest moments on Doing the Best I Can calls up (very) faint comparisons to Another Green World-era Eno, or perhaps the melodic simplicity of early Magnetic Fields. Indeed, much of the charm of McMillan’s album derives from the dated (yet decidedly non-“retro”) sounds emanating from his choice of instrumentation and drum sequencing, which is simple and quirky, lending those same sentiments to the compositions themselves. Structurally, verses, choruses, and bridges are used extremely sparingly, and for much of the album, individual tracks set up a melodic arc early on and then plug away, some shorter and some a bit longer, with the average track sitting right around two minutes or so. There’s folk-laden pop jaunts (“Three Blind Mice See Again”), whimsical interlocks of sparse guitar and bass over bargain basement percussion (“Appalachian Mountain Hop”), introspective pieces that sound straight off of a late 80’s NES-console (“On Through the Maze”), and bedroom hip-hoppers without the lyrics (“Ode to the Next Michael Jordan”). When McMillan sings, the results are mixed, though his voice isn’t necessarily to blame, it’s just that the instrumentals are more fun. The rainbow folk of “Glue it Back” sounds like it could be an outtake from Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs-era Elf Power, and “Cultivating Resistance” is brooding and self aware, with McMillan painting an overall theme of personal improvement and spiritual searching in all the lyrical pieces on the album. In all, Doing the Best I Can may not sound professional, and it may not be the most prolific or best played record you’ve heard today. But there’s enough raw ideas and heart here to make up for it, and one hopes that McMillan continues to maintain the sense of easy whimsy, melody, and accessibility found here on future recordings.
On a related note: though it’s been said elsewhere and more eloquently, it remains true that much of what constitutes the “form a band/record an album/play some shows/record an album” conundrum is still just varying degrees of fashion, hype, and salesmanship, all slanted and enchanted and run ragged through the teeth of the slowly dissolving “industry” walking hand in hand with the social media ego-strokers. Even phenomenal bands and musicians that should know better are susceptible to the same games in an effort to sell records or get laid or whatever. Nobody’s really faulting them for it (well, some of them at least), that’s just the way it is. But hey hey, there’s always been a better way – and if it all bums you out a little too much sometimes, look no further for a reboot than to that neighbor of yours who stays up late fiddling with his ancient Tascam 4-track, or the girl you work with who’s recorded 20 albums but never got around to distributing them. They’re out there in force, and if you want a refreshing dip into the pool of the eternal muse in the digital era, just put your swim trunks on. The internet isn’t just a series of tubes; (here’s hoping) it just may be the Waterloo of all things establishment, so get out there and listen to something different already.
Reviewer: Reed Burnam
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)