IF A PERSON be measured by those who surround him, then perhaps we may say that a song stylist is measured by the tunes finding their ways into the singer's aura. Those songs are, after all, living, breathing creatures. None so alive as Brian Wilson's fragile, slipping-off-the-edge classic "'Till I Die," from the great Surf's Up, which has now found its way to Christy McWilson of Seattle rootsrock combo The Picketts. Amid a backdrop of whispery mandolin (Pete Buck), weeping pedal steel (Greg Leisz) and burnished 12-string (Rick Shea), McWilson floats across the tune's oddly complex melodic changes like the very same "cork on the ocean" described in the lyrics, and in a voice so heart-rendingly sweet yet drenched in such otherworldly sadness it practically brings you to your knees. Actually, it does: the closing moments, when she duets and harmonizes with herself on the lines "These things will be/ Until I die," bring crushing home a sense of existential loneliness comparable to that brief, punched-in-stomach feeling one gets when thinking about a family member, friend or lover who left the earth far too soon.
The rest of McWilson's Dave Alvin-produced solo debut comprises lovely, luscious originals, ranging from the country-folk of the Emmylou Harris-like title cut to the upbeat twang 'n' yodle of "Little Red Hen" to the honkytonk stomp of "Cryin' Out Loud." Throughout, McWilson offers lucid observations about what it means to go through life with the usual litany of complaints and regrets but finding the strength to learn from, not wallow in, them. As joined by players such as those listed above, plus Don Heffington, Mike Mills, Chris Gaffney, Syd Straw and even Alvin himself, she's got the kind of dream musical accompaniment even far more famous talents would kill for--not to mention the songs to go with the accompaniment.