Artist: Sixpence None the Richer
Album: My Dear Machine EP
In Brief: A 4-track EP and a Christmas album probably aren’t the best way to stage a comeback… but I’m just glad Sixpence came back to begin with!
One of my favorite defunct bands got back together this year, and I totally didn’t see it coming. Then again, this unexpected move came from a band whose breakup I also didn’t see coming four years ago. With some bands, you can tell that the writing is on the wall, but this wasn’t the case with Sixpence None the Richer. Aside from the two primary members, lead singer Leigh Nash and songwriter/guitarist/string arranger extraordinaire Matt Slocum, the band had always had a rather loosely defined lineup, and it didn’t seem like the duo at the band’s core showed any signs of wanting to go their separate ways. Truth be told, I still don’t understand why Sixpence called it quits in 2004. Maybe Leigh and Matt don’t understand it any more, either. Once I found out that they had gotten back together, their attitude on the matter seemed to simply be that it made sense to collaborate again. Whatever came between them, or whatever individual muses they felt called to follow, it seems to be of no consequence four years later.
Truth be told, I heard enough of Leigh during the band’s hiatus that I never really felt the void as strongly as I normally would when one of my favorite groups disbands. Her 2006 solo debut, Blue on Blue, was a much lighter and poppier affair than Sixpence’s more cerebral (and often more emotionally downtrodden) material tended to be, but as pop albums chock full of love songs go, it was rather delightful. Then came the flipside in 2007 – a collaboration with electronica act Delerium called Fauxliage, which found Leigh singing hook-laden but mostly downbeat songs that perhaps foreshadowed the end of her 11-year marriage to Mark Nash. Somewhere in between all this, apparently she and Matt found a way to pick up where they left off, and the 4-song EP My Dear Machine was slipped in, far under the radars of pop culture watchers who had long since forgotten about “Kiss Me” (or had at least tried to).
I’m not usually the kind of guy who gets excited about such a short EP, but when it’s the first new material in several years from a band that I thought was long gone, my ears are definitely going to perk up. It’s definitely a rebirth for Sixpence, hinting at a few chapters of the band’s former life, but not easily comparable to any one style that Sixpence attempted on their old albums. Whether it’s just a one-off collaboration for old time’s sake or an appetite-whetter for a new full-length album remains to be seen (they also have a new Christmas album out, but I’m not sure yet if we’ll get an album’s worth of new material from them in 2009), but judging from this brief glimpse of their current mindset, the band could grow in several different directions from here. The alternative jangle-pop of their first few albums might be long gone, and they’ll probably never score another hit remotely as big as “Kiss Me”, but they’ve proven that their old rusty songwriting engine churns out markedly different results each time they crank it up. Despite the exception of one song that is merely decent, few collections than run as short as four songs have ever held this much promise.
1. My Dear Machine
I broke your trust, and let you rust
So sorry, my dear machine
Broken down to the muddy ground
What a dismal backyard scene…
Now here’s something you don’t hear from Sixpence every day – muddy, gritty electric guitar and a horn section (!) Alright, so for the last four years, you probably haven’t been hearing Sixpence every day to begin with, but still, the only other times I can recall hearing horns in a Sixpence song were in the tranquil, lovelorn “Dizzy” and the smoky, downtrodden “The Lines of My Earth”, both of which are very unlike this sassy, radio-friendly little number. The lyrics are basically an apology sung by Leigh to her “dear machine” that has been left to rust for far too long, and while there are some slightly goofy rhymes here that make this not the best example of the band’s songwriting skills, it actually sort of fits because the song appears to be about dusting off the old songwriting skills and giving it another go. Not terribly deep, but it’s a fun way to reintroduce us to a band that was never quite content sticking to a single musical style.
2. Amazing Grace (Give It Back)
Years in the desert with no drink
Strike the rock and make it bleed
And please Lord, give it back to me…
This mid-tempo track combines two of Sixpence’s most notable qualities – an affinity for moody chord progressions involving a lot of minor key, and the ability to be openly spiritual without giving out the usual easy answers favored by Christian radio. This acoustic guitar and piano-based song would have been a perfect thematic fit for Divine Discontent – it takes on the whole concept of believing in God but finding it difficult to see and communicate with God, and feeling extremely dissatisfied with that. Consider it a less anthemic, more insular version of U2‘s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, from the point of view of a more cynical generation. Heck, while I’m on the subject, “Wake Up Dead Man” wouldn’t be a bad comparison, either. While not as harsh as that often-disowned U2 track, there’s a similar quality in Leigh’s confusion, hearkening back to some of David’s more frustrated Psalms. Maybe it’s unsettling to hear a woman packing two familiar Christian phrases such as “I need the streams in the desert that sing amazing grace” into a single, heartfelt line after having just admitted, “And yet You’re so damn hard to find.” It’s an honest place to be, though – I know I’ve been there. I think it needed to be said.
3. Sooner than Later
I always knew there’d be questions
And I know what you tried to do
You were something special
There was nothing simple about you…
This track would be the 1 out of 4 that doesn’t quite cut the mustard – you can tell from the chirpier melody and the more relational focus that Leigh probably took the lead with the songwriting here. While it tends to be less cerebral than Matt’s usual style, I don’t think that’s a bad thing – as mentioned above, I enjoyed both the upside and the downside of Leigh’s emotions as expressed on her solo album and the Fauxliage project. The problem here is that it feels out of place, like a B-side that was left off of Blue on Blue because it was too much of a downer. Leigh managed to work a few of her relationship songs into past Sixpence albums, and they didn’t feel like intrusions, so I’m not sure what happened here. It might be that the music’s too indistinct, with the mild-mannered keyboards and the guitars and drums not really doing anything exciting. It might be the repetitive chorus melody that doesn’t really resolve itself – though a few tracks on Blue on Blue kind of had that problem, too. Oh well, you kind of expect that sort of stuff on EPs, and it’s better to get it out of the way now and save the best quality material for an album somewhere down the road. Still, it’s the only reason My Dear Machine didn’t get 5 stars from me.
If it’s right or if it’s wrong, we’re still alone
Sad songs growing up through the pavement…
Another underrated but important aspect of Sixpence’s music was Matt’s skill with string arrangements. Just the right touch from a string section was enough to make some of the otherwise dry moments from the band’s self-titled record really stand out in my mind, and on an already lovely song like “Melody of You” or “Dizzy”, they just drove the euphoria level off the charts. Here, Matt takes a page from “baroque pop” artists such as Sufjan Stevens or Anathallo, creating a methodical but compelling loop of plucked strings and glockenspiel that drives the song, with the drums and electric guitar playing more of a secondary role behind the exotic foreground. Leigh’s chorus is almost a mantra, as if the song was meant to summon a departed soul – “We need you to be, need you to be around”. There’s a definite sadness to it, and it’d be a devastating way to end a full-length record, but I don’t mind it being last here since there are only 4 tracks to begin with, and it certainly ends the EP on a high note. To borrow a phrase from Over the Rhine, sometimes “the saddest songs are the happiest”.
So, assuming you’re interested in getting your hands on this EP, where would you do so? The answer is, I don’t know – at least, not literally. I’m not sure there are any physical copies in existence, unless the band is selling them at shows or something. But I got it from an inventive little music website called NoiseTrade.com, where Sixpence and a plethora of other indie artists got together and decided to basically give their music away in exchange for some good-old grassroots fanbase building. You can either tell 3 friends about Sixpence’s new EP in exchange for a free download, or you can go the Radiohead-inspired route and pay what you want for it if you don’t feel like spamming your friends. I think that’s a pretty good deal – it probably wouldn’t work for big name mainstream bands, but when you’re underground and word-of-mouth advertisement is your most reliable asset, I think this approach helps foster fan loyalty. We’ll see how it works out for them in the long run… assuming there is a long run this time around!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
My Dear Machine $1.50
Amazing Grace (Give It Back) $2
Sooner than Later $.50
Leigh Nash: Vocals
Matt Slocum: Guitar, cello, string arrangements
Justin Cary: Bass
Jason Lehning: Drums
Originally published on Epinions.com.