Artist: Sixpence None the Richer
Album: Lost in Transition
In Brief: The swirly guitars are gone. The luscious string arrangements are gone. But Slocum and Nash still make occasional magic together, so I’ll give it a weak recommendation.
Getting the band back together ain’t what it used to be. There was a time when it felt like a special occasion when a once-popular band who had broken up at the top of their game (or perhaps slowly faded from view for a few years first) announced a reunion. These days, it seems like everyone I loved in the 90s who fizzled out in the 2000s is doing it. I’m not complaining, necessarily. Some of these artists probably never intended to take a permanent break anyway – perhaps they just needed more time to explore their artistic muses aside from the band, or to work out some personal stuff. For me it’s always good to know that members of a favorite band are recording together because they want to, because they feel that the magic is there. Not because they have to and some label is pressuring them to recapture lightning in a bottle.
Since the members of Sixpence None the Richer knew a thing or twenty about record labels pushing them around and otherwise making their careers hell, I figured that their comeback in 2008, releasing music independently on their own terms, could only lead to great things. They put out a pretty good EP called My Dear Machine that year, a sign of great things sure to come. Then their first full-length album out of the gate, The Dawn of Grace, was… a Christmas album. OK, a bit of a strange way to reintroduce yourselves to popular culture, but you know what, I enjoyed it. Then… nothing. For four long years, absolutely nothing aside from the occasional track leaked to their MySpace page or something like that. They had wanted to get an album out in 2010. Surprise, surprise, they had signed to yet another label that started jerking them around again. Some things never change. It’s easy to blame the money-grubbing big-wigs who work at such companies for keeping an anticipated release in limbo just so that they can wait for whatever arbitrary timing they feel would serve their sales best. But after all these years, I really thought Sixpence would have known better than to bother with a label in the first place. Some people just never learn.
So, two years after the initially projected release date, one title change, and four years out from the EP that gave us a sneak peek at some of this new album’s material, we Sixpence fans finally have Lost in Transition (renamed from its original title Strange Conversation, and with some rather amateurish cover art, I must say) in our hands. It seems to me like it arrived with a whimper, owing to the band having no choice but to self-release it after the label dragged things out for so long and then apparently decided it was completely unmarketable. If you liked Sixpence back in the day and were completely unaware that this thing existed, I’m sure you’re probably not alone, because I don’t recall this thing getting much press outside of the handful of hardcore fans and Christian music publications who had been following them since The Fatherless and the Widow. The world of popular music at large, who caught wind of the band via “Kiss Me” and then proceeded to act indifferently toward most of the follow-up singles (well, the ones that weren’t covers anyway) that the band produced in its wake, probably won’t notice this new record at all. And that’d be fine with me, if it possessed the edge of their 90s albums or the consistency of Divine Discontent.
Unfortunately it doesn’t. This is the most polished and yet also the most mellow album that Sixpence has come up with yet, despite what its two big friendly singles right at the beginning might lead you to believe. I’m not knocking either of those artistic choices individually. The band’s self-titled album, despite containing “Kiss Me”, was almost devastatingly downbeat and yet, once I really took the time to get into it, its unusual melodies and delicious arrangements really won me over. Meanwhile, Divine Discontent remains their most commercial album by a long shot, and yet it’s my favorite of theirs due to the diversity of song styles and – once again – the lushness of the arrangements. Matt Slocum really had a gift for scoring a song back in the day, and that combined with his soul-searching, confessional, and literate lyrics made the perfect vehicle for Leigh Nash‘s vulnerable, childlike voice. Slocum and Nash have always been the core of the band, and neither one wanted to keep it up without the other, which is why they went on that hiatus between ’04 and ’08. But the balance has changed now that they’re back together – Nash’s more direct (though still quite vulnerable) writing style has a much stronger presence than Slocum’s, it seems, and those lush arrangements are all but missing. Blame it on the label pulling out their support and thus their budget if you like – but what we’re left with is a mostly adult contemporary pop record that takes very few musical risks and doesn’t do much justice to the blood, sweat and tears that clearly went into the songwriting process behind it. If you’ve heard the My Dear Machine EP, you’ve actually heard most of its best tracks, except that two of the three which made the cut here seem to pale to the originals (and the fourth, “Around”, interestingly the most arrangement-heavy of the cuts on that EP, has been inexplicably left out). A few new tracks show a little bit of that old Sixpence spark – or at least the warmth and insight I felt when listening to some of the better tracks on Nash’s solo album Blue on Blue. If that sounds like faint praise, it is. As much as this reviewer, who happened to be a fan before they went mainstream, wants to rally support and beg for the world at large to understand this small-scale indie pop band that just happened to score a few mainstream hits by chance, I just have to admit that Sixpence just didn’t bring the goods this time around. Lost in Transition is pleasant enough, but it doesn’t seem to reward deeper listening the way that all of their other albums do.
1. My Dear Machine
Of the three songs we heard back in 2008 that made their way on to this album, this is the only one to make it through completely untouched. That’s right, an album released in 2012 opens with not just a 4-year-old song, but a 4-year-old recording of that song. I can’t complain, since it’s one of the few Sixpence songs these days that actually feels a bit rock-oriented and has an intriguing arrangement to it (I will always love the horn section!). But wouldn’t it have been better to open with something that Sixpence is doing in the here and now… or at least was doing in 2010, when most of the album was actually written? The flashback would have worked better mid-album. None of this will matter to those who didn’t hear the EP – a potential new listener hearing this one for the first time might be pleasantly surprised if they thought they had Sixpence all figured out based on past singles. I didn’t realize this when I first heard the song, but Slocum’s gone meta again with his lyrics, writing about the songwriting process itself, comparing it to an old rusted-out car that hasn’t been driven in ages. The song comes across as an apology and a problem to take better care of the machine that’s served him so faithfully over the years. Looking at his share of the lyrics on this album, I’d say he made good on that promise.
The meta continues with this pop-oriented song, one of the few on this album that I think might stand a chance of some moderate radio success (which must be intentional, given that it’s about hearing an old favorite song on the radio). Though Slocum penned this one, the breezier melody and the vulnerability with which Leigh sings it makes it easy to imagine that it’s coming from her perspective. Here she reminisces about long drives with a former lover, hearing that old song they both loved on the radio, and even making the long trek to see that favorite band live. Now that they’re no longer together, she hears the song again but doesn’t know if she can sing along to it any more. Part of me likes to imagine that this song is self-referential and it’s talking about “Kiss Me”, but then I guess the band already dealt with what an albatross that one-hit-wonder had become for them in “Paralyzed”, plus the idea of a member of Sixpence going to a Sixpence concert doesn’t really work out. So it’s about some unknown song by some other band. That’s fine. Many of us can relate to the experience, and while musically this track might not take a lot of chances, the melody’s got enough of a lift to it that it feels like it could have fit in among the intelligent pop songs that were present on Divine Discontent.
3. Give It Back
This moody mid-tempo song (heh, that phrase describes roughly 75% of Sixpence’s discography) really hit me in a powerful way when I first heard in on My Dear Machine. Slocum (in a rare co-write with Nash) has come back to the songwriting well and found it bone-dry, and this leads to a frustrated prayer of sorts in which he tries to work out with the Almighty why his gift has suddenly disappeared. When words like these are sung by a voice as delicate as Leigh’s, it can come as a bit of a shock to hear a phrase like “You’re everywhere in every time/And yet You’re so damn hard to find.” That’s how the second verse went in the original. In the re-recorded version, which mostly keeps the same mood but ever-so-imperceptibly dulls the impact of the piano melody driving it along, she instead sings “And yet You’re always hard to find.” Now I’m usually not one to favor the use of profanity in a song, but that’s a rather mild swear these days, and I felt that it had an impact, as if to say we don’t all feel a constant connection with God where we sure of exactly what He has to say, it’s OK for Christians to admit when they’re frustrated and don’t know how best to communicate with God, because God knows how you feel about it anyway. Something like that. Clumsily censoring it like this makes it easy to miss the pain behind the statement. Retitling the song (it used to be called “Amazing Grace (Give It Back)” also seems to take the focus off the chorus, which despite Slocum’s frustrated outbursts, is still a beautiful prayer (“I need the streams in the desert that sing amazing grace.”) There’s an electric guitar solo at the end of this version which adds a bit more punch compared to how the original just sort of wearily faded out, but since most of the musical changes here seem rather minute and unnecessary, I’m gonna have to say that I don’t understand why this one needed to be re-recorded at all. There’s really no one left to appease by playing it safe with the lyrics, and the changes made to the beginning of the song don’t do anything extra to help draw the listener into it, compared to the original.
4. Safety Line
Hands down, I have to say that this is the best written of the new batch of songs on this album. The piano has this sort of melody that I’m gonna describe as “floaty” (which didn’t get underlined in red so I guess it’s actually a real word), and there’s a genuine sweetness to it, without as much melancholy as some of their other tracks. Here Leigh (again as a mouthpiece for Slocum; we’ll get to a few of her songs in a minute) is defending her need to burrow deep underground and hide out in her little cave, or else float so high in the sky that she can’t be seen from the ground, and yet she wants the man she loves to always hold on to the rope that keeps her tethered to the surface. Any of you who are introverts and who are married or in long-term relationships can probably relate – you still need your “me time”, but that doesn’t mean you dislike the person you’re trying to get away from for a few hours or days. Maybe she’s dealing with something depressing that has her in a bit of a funk, or maybe she just needs to hole up in her bedroom for a few days to make some art minus the distractions. Whatever the case, her set of instructions to the man she loves includes an escape clause: “The times that I tunnel below/I need you to never let go.” It’s hard for a song to be romantic, beautifully composed, and cleverly phrased all at the same time, but this one passes the test. It’s an instant classic for Sixpence despite not resembling their old sound in any way.
5. When You Call Me
This is the first of a handful of songs that Leigh wrote with her current husband, Stephen Wilson. (I don’t know why she doesn’t just go by “Leigh Wilson” these days; I guess she’s established herself professionally using her first husband’s name, but heck, she was known as Leigh Bingham for the first two albums. I ask too many questions.) The lyrics seem to echo, in her own words, the sentiments Slocum expressed in “Give It Back”, since the song has this air of confusion to it regarding how a person knows when God is calling and what God is saying to do. There’s a loopy, confused sort of melody to it that reminds me of “Dizzy”, minus all of the romantic swooning that the latter’s breathtaking arrangement could so easily inspire. Here, subdued keyboards, guitar, and organ are the primary instruments, and they all cause the song to sort of churn about at an unsure pace, trapped in the middle between aggressive angst and resigned sorrow. There’s still an earnest to Leigh’s prayerful words – she wants to know God well, but she feels like she’s in sort of a holding pattern where that isn’t happening despite her strong desire to do so. Those prayers are just sort of hitting the ceiling and she feels like she’s missing the reply. I know what that’s like, so while this isn’t a terribly exciting song, I still find it meaningful and relatable.
6. Should Not Be This Hard
Leigh and her husband’s second co-write stumbles a bit – ironically it’s one of the poppiest moments on the album, but something about it feels squished and contorted, like the cheery melody and brisk pace of it don’t really match the sentiment it’s trying to express. It wouldn’t be the first time that Sixpence has gone for intentional lyrical dissonance, but these lyrics – which are about facing difficulty and the temptation to just throw in the towel – deserve a weightier treatment than the melody they were wed to. It sounds like the band had to whip up something on short notice for another Today Show appearance or something, which I guess would be fine in a happy song, but the result here is that they make the band sound incredibly dorky. It might be the vagueness of the lyrics that causes the song to miss the mark with me. “We can fall down, we can go round/And wind up in the middle, open up a little/It should not be this hard/Should not be this hard.” Whatever Leigh is trying at and getting nowhere with, it sounds like about as complex of a series of actions as you might find in a Sesame Street song. Is she frustrated with her band stalling out, with her first marriage fizzling out, or is it about something else entirely? It’s not like Sixpence’s other songs are super-specific about this, either, but they tend to paint just enough details into the picture that it doesn’t feel like the situation could be about absolutely anyone, anywhere. This song fails that test, and it just makes the band sound whiny as a result.
7. Go Your Way
Not much more specific in the department of “Where are these people going and why?” is this toe-tapping little country-pop song that opens the second half of the record. It’s not a hugely shocking out-of-genre experience for Sixpence – the country influence is there in the subtle bounce that the rhythm has, and maybe a bit of slide guitar. Aside from that, it’s really just another breezy pop song, one which finds Leigh doing a cute little call-and-response act with herself in the chorus. I was surprised to read that Slocum actually penned this one (with frequent songwriting buddy Sam Ashworth), since the overall look and feel of it aren’t that different from “My Idea of Heaven”, from Leigh’s criminally underrated solo album Blue on Blue. It’s less of an overt love song, I guess, since this one seems to be about two people separating for a while and then realizing they still need each other. It’s easy to write songs about falling in love, and only slightly harder to write songs about breaking up, but it’s tricky to convincingly write a song about taking a break in a relationship and then finding out it’s worth keeping. That seems to be the conclusion reached by the end of this one.
I still remember the lump I got in my throat when I realized what “The Lines of My Earth” was all about, and wondered exactly how close Matt Slocum had come to hanging it up on the band for good. This weary song seems positioned intentionally on the album as if to echo that one – it’s got that same sense of dryness to it, the drums slowly and limply carving out a rhythm in 6/8. No jazz influence this time, though – and not much of any other influence at the beginning of the song when, accompanied only by those drums, Leigh squeaks out an oddball melody that I’m sure will be an instant “love it or hate it” moment to a lot of fans. That’s one of the weird tricks in the Sixpence handbook – they tend to employ these strange chord progressions that don’t feel quite natural until you’ve heard the song several times. (See “Dizzy”, and about half of their self-titled album.) The lyrics paint a lonely picture of a woman alone in her room, late at night, with the incessant ticking of a clock being the only sound she can hear. In this moment she gets a visit from a messenger, but instead of it being the response from God she prayed for with some sort of new direction for her life, it’s just an image of herself, telling her she’s a complete failure. If there’s one thing that Sixpence has always been good at, ever since I first heard the band on This Beautiful Mess, it’s been summing up what it really feels like on the inside of a deep depression, and not summing it up with a nice neat answer within the same song. That’s what this dreary tune does – it descends all the way to the end of this character’s rope and it leaves her hanging. Unfortunately there’s not much going on her musically to make this song as richly textured as something like “The Lines of My Earth”. I hear a bit of hammer dulcimer, which is definitely something I’ve never heard in a Sixpence song before, but it’s just sort of buried in the background along with the other instruments that aren’t drums. I suppose it fits the mood, but the unfortunate effect is that this song isn’t gonna stand out to a lot of people.
9. Don’t Blame Yourself
The last thing on the album that I’d consider “up-tempo” is this song, in which Slocum rushes in at the last second to save his friend and bandmate from her despair. (Or the despair he imagined her feeling when he wrote “Failure”. Whatever.) As soon as it starts out with “Sister dear of many years”, I’m inclined to think that it’s weird to hear Leigh singing words that someone else is actually saying to her. But it’s also touching, especially knowing the backstory to it – he wanted to be an encouragement to her as she was dealing with the fallout from her divorce, and so he wrote her a song to remind her that it wasn’t her fault, and she got a little teary-eyed trying to sing it. Awww. None of the typical Slocum moodiness is present here – the more relational writing style and the way that the melody confidently punctuates the reassuring chorus makes it sound like he was trying his bes tto emulate the way that Leigh writes songs. I’m not sure how all of this would play to those who didn’t know the backstory, since it’s intentionally short on details – but even then I still think it would work as a song of encouragement from one woman to another, telling her the guy who was dumb enough to let her go isn’t worth it anyway and that she shouldn’t think of herself as damaged goods. I’ve been the “protective older brother” for enough of the little sisters I never had when they’re dealing with awful relationship crap to ensure that I strongly identify with this one.
10. Stand My Ground
This song… I swear, I keep forgetting that it’s even there. It’s so slow and limp and lifeless that it’s like it’s almost trying to avoid being noticed. The melody is uninspired and the instrumentation is dull to the point where no instrument seems to really stand out except for the drums, which don’t stand out for a good reason. Remember the self-titled album, when Dale Baker‘s drums had this sort of minimal approach that helped give voice to the weariness the band was feeling? Take that approach and sap aany remaining humanity from it to the point where it might as well be a drum machine on a loop, and that’s what hired gun drummer Will Sayles is doing here. None of it helps a song that tries to pinpoint the moment when a couple finally lost that last glimmer of feeling for each other. They look across the table at each other, and they seem to be both keeping up a charade, hoping no one will notice that they’re completely dead on the inside. You could write some great songs about that tragedy, but this boring chore of a tune isn’t one of them.
11. Sooner or Later
I thought this song was merely average, the only non-standout on My Dear Machine. But here it is, re-recorded for the album, with mostly the same arrangement and yet it seems to have even less bite than it did in its original form. It’s a matter of small degrees – I can’t compare the two recordings and say that one is shockingly different from the other. But this version, in keeping with the Nash-penned songs all bunched together at the end of the album, just feels like it struggles to get going. There’s the potential for great tension in its pensive piano melody, and its analysis of a relationship between Leigh and her father where the issues were left unresolved when he passed away. Knowing the behind-the-scenes story makes me want to like it instead of just waving it off as unmemorable fluff like I did when I heard it four years ago. And my complaint at the time that it sounded like a Leigh Nash solo song and not something that needed a reunited Sixpence to record it may well be rendered moot on an album which largely consists of Sixpence not really regaining the spark that their pre-breakup recordings possessed. I can say that I’ve learned to enjoy the melody a bit more than I used to – it sort of loops back on itself and hangs in the balance between happy and sad, which is fitting given the situation. But I feel like the arrangement needs to be something beyond just middle-of-the-road adult contemporary to really drive the feeling of it home. Listen to how Bono mourned the loss of his estranged father in U2‘s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”. I’m not saying Sixpence should aim for that sort of bigness – they’re a small, detail-oriented band by nature. But a song should never sound like it’s not even sure it wants to speak up enough to make it clear to the listener that it’s about something that was heart-wrenching for its author.
12. Be OK
Despite trying to end on something marignally upbeat and hopeful, Sixpence fails on every level with this compact little song which is all about exactly the cliche you’d expect from its title, and nothing more. Maybe after going through such tragedies as your band breaking up, your father passing away, and your husband leaving you, it can seem like a momentous occasion just to simple realize that it’s not gonna kill you, that you’re gonna pull through it and be “okay”. But that’s a brief stopover, where you nurse your wounds and gather your thoughts and muster up your courage before heading back into the fight. It’s not the kind of note that you end a story on, especially with lyrics as vague as these and a running time to short that it feels like a total waste for the drums and guitars to even bother building towards something climactic. This is an “end of side one” sort of song – a brief little burst of encouragement to bring the listener into the second act. No matter how brightly that chorus melody, with its chiming piano chords, rings out, no matter how surprising it is that the drums actually sort of come to life for a change, it all seems wasted when it all stops on a dime and Leigh’s last word rings out into the cold night – “okay”. Millions of pop songs have been written about how everything’s gonna be okay. Songs have even been written which try to excuse themselves for using the cliche “it’s gonna be okay”, and many of those have still failed. What on God’s green Earth makes a songwriter these days think they can get away with such a banal phrase being the central refrain of one of their songs? Quick songwriting 101 lesson: NEVER DO THIS.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
My Dear Machine $1.75
Give It Back $1.25
Safety Line $1.75
When You Call Me $1
Should Not Be This Hard $.25
Go Your Way $1
Don’t Blame Yourself $1.25
Stand My Ground -$.25
Sooner or Later $.50
Be OK -$.25
Leigh Nash: Lead vocals
Matt Slocum: Guitar, cello
Justin Cary: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: