In a more refined world, Marykate O’Neil’s tuneful story songs would be heard on the radio more than the cutesy, advertising jingle-like compositions of Colbie Caillat or Ingrid Michaelson. This third solo release finds the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter turning out songs with such flair that it makes me wonder how long it’ll be until she becomes more widely discovered.
On MK Ultra, a six-song EP, the former Piewackit frontperson leaves behind the folkie tendencies that infused her first two solo releases and moves more into pure pop and art-pop territory. Some of this is no doubt due to her working with big guns Jill Souble (who plays, writes and co-produces with O’Neil) and Roger Moutenot (who also co-produces). Together they spit-shine O’Neil’s sound and give it a pop sheen it’s previously lacked.
That’s evident in the opening cut, “Green Street,” which mines the same emotional territory as last album’s “Why Don’t You Visit?” In the new tune, O’Neil is again wistfully wishing for the good ol’ days with a wayward lover/friend. But this time around, the hooks are sharper, the story is snappier and the chorus sounds positively triumphant because of both the production and O’Neil’s more confident singing. All that adds up to a song that sounds like a future college-radio staple, not a dashed-off ephemeral pleasure.
The navel gazing of (the autobiographical?) “Map” avoids soppiness thanks to the buzzy hip-hop beats that underpin the tune. In “Nothing I Say Or Do,” O’Neil seeks acceptance from a remote lover; the mournful strings hint that she won’t find it anytime soon.
“Trouble” may be the record’s tour-de-force. Against a swirling 3/4 time signature, O’Neil recounts the story of a drug buddy whose life descends into her drinking Vicks Cough Syrup and either religious salvation or more addiction (depending on your interpretation of the ending). “Even I knew…trouble,” she intones to the haunting backdrop of keyboards and semi-chanted background vocals. Haunting and effective.
The record wraps with two cover songs, one by Randy Newman (“Without You”) and another by Adam Schlesinger and Souble (“Happy”). The fact that they’re not nearly as ingratiating as O’Neil’s originals points to how strong her writing has become. It also bodes well for O’Neil’s forthcoming full-length, Underground, due out in February.