Lily & Madeleine

lilymadeleineSisterly harmonies have long been a part of pop music, from the big band sounds of the Andrews Sisters to Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson; but recent years have seen a boom of musical sister acts, including such hit makers as Haim, Tegan & Sara, and First Aid Kit. Teenaged sisters Lily & Madeleine are the latest additions to this elite club. Think of them as the new Simon & Garfunkel to the Secret Sisters‘ Everly Brothers.

Signed to Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty Records, the Indiana siblings sing sophisticated close harmonies over gentle, acoustic backing— but if that sounds boring, think again! Because these ladies are also gifted songwriters, and they imbue each tune with an original perspective. Highly expressive singing tints each song with a new mood, from the folky “Come to Me” to the wistful “Spirited Away”, which recalls summer days long past.

Although their influences are mainly folk artists like Simon & Garfunkel and their label owner Sufjan, the sisters still work in some surprises. The haunting “Disappearing Heart” could be a vintage Heart slow jam, while “Nothing But Time” bops along like the Innocence Mission. “Paradise” sounds like it comes from the heyday of K Records, recalling the Softies and the Crabs.

Combined with their introductory EP, The Weight of the Globe, the album is almost an embarassment of riches and talent. Strong songwriting, beautiful singing, and a highly enjoyable debut album—at ages 16 and 18, Lily & Madeleine are poised to take over the world.

Pure Bathing Culture: “Moon Tides”

pbcAs the summer winds down, popsicles and swimming pools give way to the ennui of the dog days. An eagerly anticipated season has overstayed its welcome yet again. Pure Bathing Culture has crafted an album perfectly suited to the waning summer, suitable for weekend drives and one last visit to the lake.

Consisting of vocalist Sarah Versprille and guitarist Daniel Hindman, PBC captures the best of 80s-era Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of Kate Bush. The mystical lyrics of songs like “Pendulum” and “Temples of the Moon” paint a dreamy picture of the collision of nature and the spiritual world, while the gently chiming guitars recall hazy early-90s pop by the likes of the Cranberries and the Sundays.

moontidesWith strains of 80s synth-pop bleeding into many of the songs on Moon Tides,  the sweetly catchy choruses could easily have scored a John Hughes movie. While “Scotty” wouldn’t sound out of place on 1988’s hit list, “Only Lonely Lovers” manages to merge Phil Spector’s 1960s girl groups with Echo and the Bunnymen. “Temples of the  Moon” summons Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”; a fitting end to an album that seems to revel in the bittersweet end of a golden season.

Although clearly adept at melding styles of the past, Pure Bathing Culture still claims a spot of their own in the music realm. This debut makes summer’s farewell sound sweeter than ever.

The Black Belles

blackbellesThere’s something to be said for a good story. According to their official Third Man Records bio, the Black Belles met at the boarding school where each member had been sent by their despairing parents. The bio shares the reasons why each girl was the black sheep of the family (sample: “Kicked out of girl scouts for poisoning cookies. Allegedly.”), before stating that the boarding school was where she “found others just like her.” Of course, given Third Man Records founder Jack White’s propensity for mythology, the bio is just good (un)clean fun.

blackbelles2In actuality, the Black Belles are Olivia Jean, Shelby Lynn, and Ruby Rogers, who were introduced to each other by Jack White. Olivia Jean, the group’s lead singer and primary songwriter, met Jack back in their Detroit days, where she formed and fronted a surf rock band. Combining the aggression of garage rock with a “friendly goth” sensibility, the ladies of the Black Belles recorded their debut in 2011. With their trademark hats and dark clothing, their look caught people’s attention right away, but their musical talent runs far deeper than their image ever could.

Songs like “Honky Tonk Horror” and “Wishing Well” deliver the hard-rocking sound Olivia Jean developed through years of playing live and as a studio hired gun. The album is uniform, but sets a mood—specifically, that it was recorded at a dance hosted by the Addams Family (a compliment if there ever was one!). The girls have toured extensively in the U.S. and England, where audiences are treated to originals and an excellent selection of covers, including the Sonics’ “The Witch”, a song that allows Shelby Lynn’s drumming to shine.

The Belles have been (mostly) quiet since the release of their album two years ago, but let’s hope they release a follow-up soon.

Joni Mitchell: “Song to a Seagull”

joniguitarAn album that opens with a song about a divorce and closes with a song about freedom promises to tell an interesting story, and that is exactly what Joni Mitchell’s debut delivers. Produced by David Crosby, a huge fan of Joni’s songs, the album’s simple instrumentation belies the complex stories the songs tell. A genuine artist even from the beginning of her career, Joni has said that the songs on her debut are classical songs played with folk instruments. The unusual construction of the songs and the way vocals are used to represent various classical instruments were novel concepts at the time of the album’s release in 1968. Divided into two halves, with the first side titled “I Came to City” and the flip called “Out of the City and Down to the Seaside”, it was a true concept album.

Opener “I Had a King” provides some detail into the dissolution of Joni’s marriage to Chuck Mitchell, her former singing partner: “I can’t go back there anymore/You know my keys don’t fit the door/You know my thoughts don’t fit the man/They never can, they never can”. The sweet “Michael From Mountains” follows, telling the story of a love that flourishes despite the mystery that exists between the two partners. It would become one of Joni’s early classics. The rest of the “City” section contains paeans to city life (“Night in the City”) a story of urban isolation (“Marcie”) and a story about a very bitter cabbie (“Nathan La Freneer”).

seagullThe “Seaside” portion of the album takes place after the break, when the captivity the narrator somewhat enjoyed has been disintegrated. Learning to make her way in the world alone, she explores her new surroundings in songs like “Sisotowbell Lane”, “The Dawntreader” and “Pirate of Penance”. In the title track, she mourns the loss of the freedom she originally had: “My gentle relations have names they must call me/For loving the freedom of all flying things/My dreams with the seagulls fly/Out of reach, out of cry”.

The album’s final song, “Cactus Tree”, is one of Joni’s truest classics. The story of a woman who enjoys the company of several different men over the course of her life’s seasons, it was one of the first songs to suggest that women, too, could view life as a journey. The concept of a “journeyman” had previously been applied exclusively to men; Joni turned the concept on its head by pointing out that men were not the only ones who could be complex, intelligent, ever-changing beings.

joniJoni insisted upon giving her audience all-new songs for her debut, even though other artists had already covered some of her songs (“Both Sides Now”, “The Circle Game”, and “Chelsea Morning”) with great commercial success. She would hold on to her famous songs and record her own versions of them later. She seemed to know that she wouldn’t need them to get the attention of the world, and indeed she didn’t: Song to a Seagull announced to the world that Joni Mitchell had arrived. With its colorful cover— painted by Joni herself—and the printed lyrics telling stories of the freedom found by the characters within, an entirely new lifestyle was subsequently available to young women. And with that announcement, Joni Mitchell went on to make immeasurably significant contributions to music and culture that continue to this day.

Stevie Nicks: “Bella Donna”

“Don’t you know that the stars are a part of us?”

stevie-nicksBeing a member of Fleetwood Mac, the biggest band of the 1970s, should have been a dream come true. Instead, for Stevie Nicks, it was beginning to feel like a punishment. Stevie was a vital member of the band, providing them with hits like “Rhiannon” and “Landslide”; her song “Dreams” had given the band its only number one hit. She was also the public face of the band, with her eccentric stage outfits and charisma. Still, her songs had to share space on Fleetwood Mac albums with songs by her best friend, Christine McVie, and those by her ex-boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham. She was lucky to get two or three songs per album. Since Stevie was a prolific writer, she had accumulated dozens of songs that had not yet been recorded.

belladonnaPouring all of her passion into her songs, Stevie felt they deserved to be heard. She cofounded a record label to ensure that she would have control over the resulting recordings, and began to work on her debut album, Bella Donna, in between Fleetwood Mac tours and recording sessions. Released in 1981, the album was an immediate hit, topping the charts and going on to sell over four million copies.

The album veers through several genres, from haunting piano ballads like the title track and the serpentine “Kind of Woman”, to the rock edge of “Outside the Rain”, to the country charms of “After the Glitter Fades”. Enlisting members of the Heartbreakers and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Stevie was able to record top-notch performances. She skillfully worked with these distinctive musicians while maintaining her own unique sound.

Despite her ethereal looks, Stevie was not afraid to sound earthy. Her raspy voice, with its velvety undertones, could make any lyric sound world-weary and tough. On the hit duet “Leather and Lace”, with Don Henley, she scolds, “I have my own life, and I am stronger than you know.” On the album’s other hit duet, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”, she more than holds her own with Tom Petty, and eventually tells him, “You need someone looking after you.”

stevieliveStevie was also in a unique position to examine her rock star reputation. On “After the Glitter Fades”, she reflects, “I never thought I’d make it here in Hollywood; I never thought I’d ever want to stay/What I seem to touch these days has turned to gold, what I seem to want, you know I find a way”. After discussing fading dreams and one night stands, she concludes, “Even though the living is sometimes laced with lies, it’s alright/The feeling remains even after the glitter fades.”

Perhaps the most enduring song from Bella Donna is the blistering “Edge of Seventeen”, a song Stevie wrote after hearing about the murder of John Lennon. “And so, with the slow graceful flow of age/I went forth with an age-old desire to please/On the edge of seventeen”, she sings, before dissolving into a guttural growl. In concert, this song became the centerpiece of the show. The clip below is from the final night of Stevie’s solo shows; her tears at the song’s conclusion are due to the end of the freedom of her own tour, since the next day she was due to rejoin Fleetwood Mac to begin recording their next album. Happily, Stevie was able to revisit her solo career, as she continues to release solo albums and tour. Bella Donna remains the most perfect encapsulation of her vision.

The Mynabirds: “What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood”

mynabirdsEvery album ever released, every song, are links in an endless chain. Influences, inspirations— they are always present, sometimes in ways that are delightfully obvious (Amy Winehouse), and sometimes in ways that are less evident (Grimes). Before releasing their album Generals in 2012, The Mynabirds offered up a very different record: 2010’s What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, which wears its influences on its vintage sleeves.

Although recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, the album sounds as though it was made in the south; specifically, it could have been recorded in a cavernous Baptist church basement in Memphis (and that’s a very good thing). Equal parts Cat Power and Dusty in Memphis, there’s a timeless quality to the songs, and Laura Burhenn’s voice has a hazy sweetness that conjures images of honeysuckle blossoms in the summertime.

Covering a handful of genres, from the gentle country of “Good Heart” to the Velvet Underground strum of “Ways of Looking”, the album is not easily categorized. The driving force of “Let the Record Go” is balanced by the contemplative title track and “Give It Time”, while “L.A. Rain” has a soulful strut:

 

mynabirdscoverSome of the songs are so classic that they seem to have existed for years, although each song was written by Laura Burhenn. “Right Place” is a tear-inducing ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Emmylou Harris album, with lovely lyrics and an affecting performance. “Numbers Don’t Lie” draws from the girl group well, with its lighthearted backing vocals and whimsical music video:

 

mynabirds2After the release of What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, The Mynabirds changed direction. Their second album would radically reinterpret their sound, with prominent percussion and political lyrics, and they would increase their fan base exponentially. But recordings are forever, and fans of the first album can return to the tiny world of that imaginary church basement time and again, wondering who the next link in the chain will be.

Janis Joplin: “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!”

Janis Joplin: soul singer?

janis2Janis’ death at age 27, just two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, shocked music fans around the world. It also ensured her legendary status, and cemented her reputation as the stereotypical hippie songstress, perpetually high on various substances, her voice surrounded by screeching guitars—so some would believe. Listeners who take the time to delve into Janis’ small output (three albums) will find an artist with considerable range, as each album she released featured a completely different sound. After she’d left Big Brother and the Holding Company’s psychedelic rock sound, but before she moved on to the roots-rock style of her third & final album Pearl, Janis recorded a soul album: 1969’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!

janisThe record’s striking cover image was markedly different than covers from other female artists in the 1960s: it announced, right up front, that this was a woman who did not care if she looked pretty. She was here to sing, to bare her soul, and to connect with her audience, whomever they might be. The vibrant color of her hair and the intensity born out on her face as she sang were revolutionary.

The album contained a couple of songs written by Janis, along with covers of blues and R&B songs. The artist who most inspired the sound of the album was not a woman, but soul singer Otis Redding. Janis’ cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”, a song written by the Gibb brothers for Redding (who died before he could record it), is a testament to his influence.

“Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” put a rock spin on the soul sound, while “One Good Man” and “Work Me Lord” featured bluesy riffs peppered with Stax-style horns. The title track, “Kozmic Blues”, just missed the Top 40, becoming the album’s highest-charting song. Joplin’s voice is in top form throughout, and her amazing control is fully evidenced by her elegant cover of “Little Girl Blue”. But the album’s biggest success is “Maybe”, a cover of an already-soulful girl group classic from ten years before. In Janis’ skillful hands, the song becomes something so much more, and the listener is left to wistfully imagine what might have been.

Janis’ legacy has made her unforgettable, but it has also overshadowed some of her musical contributions.  Kozmic Blues may not be the typical soul album, but it is a soul album nonetheless. Aside from the obvious signifiers (the distinctively Stax/Volt-influenced guitars and horns), the emotion poured into each song should guarantee its spot in the soul music canon.

The Secret Sisters

In the liner notes to the White Stripes’ seminal Elephant, released 10 years ago this spring, Jack White writes:

“This album is dedicated to, and is for, and about the death of the sweetheart. In a social plane, impossible to exist, and in memories, past defeating present. We mourn the sweetheart’s loss in a disgusting world of…the thirteen year old tattoo, the hard attitude, devil may care, don’t call your parents, drink, insult, thank only yourself, and blame the rest if you don’t get buried in the boot of the rocker, the trunk of the car, and they get laughs, they get home late, they missed the rent, they forgot your money, they’ve got a new friend, they won’t be told they are wrong…

Honesty in bloom, heart on sleeve, life ever exposed and safe, courtesy to them and all you know, cinnamon and cider mills part last night’s drenched roof shingles, down and cotton covered breath, out in the open with nothing to hide, mention of soft paper and pine, soda powder and brown paper bags, angora and hound’s tooth, youth and canvas, fresh color, blind chance and forward stumble, scarlet mood, and white ivory shimmering laugh, safe in mind and comfort in home, absent of flies and anger, blankets of your own, peaches in cellar, subtle hair and skin, sand and leaf, felt napkin and clothing line, warm air from heating vent, snow on ground, reunions of sane unforced presence, motherly intervention held in suspense, enraptured holy sight, reception in halls, your Sunday go to meeting, your helping hand, your summersault, your attic, your home and your preservation, so simple, so untouched, this is as wise as raven and easy to trust, yet have they known, and yet may they wonder, with words and thought and thorn, this spirit and persona under.”

It’s no secret that sincerity has been making a comeback lately (see the success of Moonrise Kingdom, or even The Hunger Games), but surely the days of innocence evoked by White’s closing passage have passed—the sweethearts have gone, never to return.

Enter the Secret Sisters.

ssalbumComprised of actual sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers, the duo burst onto the Nashville scene in 2010, collaborating with Jack White (of course) on a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River”. Their debut album was executive produced by Americana aficionado T Bone Burnett, and was released later that year.

Image-wise, the sisters exactly fit the description of sweethearts—performing in vintage dresses, with hairstyles and lipstick that evoke a bygone era, the ladies seem ready for a date at the soda shop—but it’s their distinctive, heavenly sound that captures imaginations and induces tears. Intricate harmonies that could belong only to sisters, wound around irony-free traditional country tunes, are positively exotic today. The Secret Sisters manage to make songs that are 50 years old sound fresh, while never straying from the original spirit of American country music.

Songs on the album can be divided neatly into two categories: upbeat honky tonk, and bone-chilling ballads. George Jones’ classic “Why Baby Why” and Buck Owens’ “My Heart Skips A Beat” keep things country, while “I’ve Got a Feeling” casts the duo as the female version of the Everly Brothers. An original song, “Tennessee Me”, conjures up lazy summer days on the front porch:

Ballads like “The One I Love is Gone”, “Do You Love an Apple”, and the cover of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid” emphasize the almost supernatural harmony between the sisters. In their closing cover of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold”, they sigh,”What good is gold, and silver too, when your heart’s not good and true?” As the final harmonies swell and the last chord is strummed, one wonders how this world could deserve something as good as The Secret Sisters.

Note: In 2012, The Secret Sisters’ song “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder” was featured on the Hunger Games soundtrack. They have recorded their second album, and it is due for release in 2013.