Secret Sisters and Jessica Lea Mayfield: Americana and American't | Bleader

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Secret Sisters and Jessica Lea Mayfield: Americana and American't

Posted By on 05.08.14 at 03:19 PM

Secret Sisters
One of the most off-putting elements of what's usually dubbed Americana music is the self-awareness of many artists plying their trade to one particular sound or another that ceased to have any contemporary resonance five, six, or seven decades ago. Embracing that sound often involves bald imitation if not a game of dress-up. On the surface Alabama's Secret Sisters fit that description to a T: the cover of their new album, Put Your Needle Down (Republic), looks like a relic of the late 30s, with Laura and Lydia Rogers dressed like a couple of dust-bowl ingenues gate-crashing a funeral, in vintage black dresses, posing in front of an old buggy. In "Iuka" the narrator reports from beyond the grave that her abusive father murdered her and her lover when they tried to elope, and even though the Rodgerses didn't write "The Pocket Knife," which was penned by PJ Harvey and originally turned up on her 2004 album Uh Huh Her, the message of a girl protesting a forced marriage has the feel of an old-timey classic. There's an undeniable drama in such artifice, and it suits the Secret Sisters well.

The new album was produced by roots maven T-Bone Burnett, who assembled a knockout cast of musicians to play the lush arrangements behind the sisters' dazzling close-harmony singing—an obvious and winning female equivalent of the Everly Brothers—including drummer Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers, Jay Bellerose, Gurf Morlix, and Marc Ribot. (Burnett also brought the sisters some songs into the studio, including a handful of unfinished tunes by Bob Dylan like "Dirty Lie," which they finished for him and recorded.) Burnett's productions skills are evident because the band, as terrific as it is, never upstages the singing or the songs—in fact, however retro the lyrics may sometimes be, and despite the persona of the singers, the music doesn't sound old-fashioned or slavish. The rippling guitar lines or the bluegrass stings may hint at a rustic past, but they're not defined by it. And as much as the Secret Sisters recall the Everly Brothers, they have their own sound that's steadily sunk its way into my brain. Below you can check out the video for one of the album's most lovely and gentle songs, "Lonely Island." The Secret Sisters open Nickel Creek's sold-out show at the Riviera on Friday.

Jessica Lea Mayfield
  • LeAnn Mueller
  • Jessica Lea Mayfield
Writing about Kent, Ohio native Jessica Lea Mayfield in 2011 I described her as a karaoke singer on one particular song, but after struggling with her recently released third album, Make My Head Sing... (ATO), I've decided she's pretty much a cipher, a vocalist who's sound is utterly inured to the music that surrounds her. She delivers lyrics in her affect-free, diminutive warble regardless of the setting. Previously she worked with Dan Auerbach of Black Keys, who emphasized a rootsy modern rock that dabbled in country and soul, but the new album suggests he was either a total Svengali, controlling her every move, or that Mayfield has no identity in the first place—I'm leaning toward the latter explanation. Of course, she was still only 21 when she released that second album, Tell Me, so maybe not.

She recorded the new record with her husband and bassist Jesse Newport, and gone are any traces of Americana in favor of a strange mix of 70s hard rock (I keep waiting for the arpeggio that ripples through "I Wanna Love You" to give way to the infamous cowbell of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper") and doom-metal guitar. There's part of me that admires the disconnect between her cooed voice and the lumbering grooves, but that doesn't mean it works. I still find her delicate, somewhat somnambulant voice appealing, but at the same time I find it increasingly hard to trust anything that it expresses—as it all comes out flat, with virtually no inflection. Below you can check out the sludgy opening track, "Oblivious." She plays the Empty Bottle on Friday.

Today's playlist:

Seapony, Falling (Hardly Art)
Charles McPherson, From This Moment On! (OJC/Prestige)
Lol Coxhill, Instant Replay (Nato)
Ellery Eskelin, Trio New York II (Prime Source)
Shahram, Shahram (Pharaway Sounds)

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