Signature Sounds

While we wait for Iris DeMent to fight through her writer's block and finally make a fourth album, Lori McKenna's fourth album, "Bittertown," is the next best thing. Like DeMent, McKenna takes small-town families as her subject, because she knows they supply all the drama any writer could ever need. McKenna never looks down on these couples and their kids, but neither does she give them a soap-opera gloss or a family-values halo. She evokes their lives with telling details and never disrespects their challenges by offering easy solutions.

McKenna lives with her plumber husband and four kids a stone's throw from her childhood home in the blue-collar, South Shore town of Stoughton, Mass. "They marry young in these parts," she sings on the opening "Bible Song"; "they work in the factory."

It's the kind of place that can be so stifling that a 24-year-old father of two will swallow way too many sleeping pills, but it's also the kind of place where his widow will receive an outpouring of support. You can still drive out to the shadowy playground where you lost your virginity, but you have to worry about the new subdivisions creeping toward that spot. You can forgive your husband one more time for his drinking because you know he's really trying, but that doesn't make it easy to live with.

McKenna has a pinched soprano, but she uses it effectively in these songs of mixed feelings, never naive about her hopes and never whining about her disappointments. Producer and multi-instrumentalist Lorne Entress has given her a jangly folk-rock backing that brings out the resilient tunefulness of these songs without ever getting in the way of the smartly constructed stories.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Wednesday at Jammin' Java. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Lori McKenna, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8127. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)