In Brief: This neo-traditional country duo swings back and forth between peppy “girl group” songs from a bygone musical era and more brooding alt-country ballads, with a heavy emphasis on songs about breaking up with good men and wishing you knew how to break up with the bad ones.
When it comes to country music, it’s hard for me to predict which acts will tickle my fancy and which ones I’ll write off almost immediately as “not my style”. I never wanted to be the stereotypical city boy who reacted to the genre with closed-minded disdain. But admittedly it can be hard to relate when a songwriter’s vernacular (or heck, even their accent) gets a little too “regional” for me to fully appreciate what’s going on. On the other end of the spectrum, when an artist seems to be trying so hard for crossover appeal that mainstream pop sensibilities take over to the point where their music is “country” in name only, I feel no shame in openly criticizing them for that. Over the years, I’ve found that I connect with the genre most easily when the emphasis is on instrumental performance, which usually means the bands are better described as “folk”, “Americana”, or perhaps even “bluegrass” instead of straight-up country. But my patience doesn’t hold out for long when they doggedly cling to traditional forms of expression. I want to hear a unique and creative spin on the genre – which is actually true for most if not all of the genres of music that I enjoy. So I’m a bit surprised to have connected with The Secret Sisters, a vocal duo from Alabama comprised of actual sisters Laura Rogers and Lydia Rogers (whose sibling relationship is presumably not a secret at this point), who sweetly sing their way through most of an album without either of the ladies ever picking up an instrument, save for one track where it’s just a basic acoustic guitar strum.
I suppose it’s all in the presentation. I first became acquainted with The Secret Sisters when the opened for Nickel Creek‘s reunion tour earlier this year. I can think of no better way for a folk or country act to get exposure to a wide range of discerning music fans whose usual genre preferences are probably quite diverse. As a live act, the two sisters supplemented by a drummer and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist, the group knew how to hit all of my sweet spots. Of course the disarming sisterly harmonies were front and center. The arrangements of their songs were often sparse, but powerful, particularly when they called for a bit of sinister slide guitar or a bouncy electric riff to go along with a catchier pop song. The ladies’ banter in between songs made it clear to me that they had a sense of humor about themselves, being fully aware that country music has a reputation of being depressing, their jokes adding a bit of levity even when the songs themselves might have seemed overly indulgent in the doldrums department. The audience was incredibly receptive to the group, so I’d imagined they scored themselves quite a few new fans that night. And their sophomore album Put Your Needle Down, while some of its arrangements were more fleshed out via studio players, largely lived up to the expectations set by their live show. Maybe a few songs felt redundant, but the overall sound of it was just the right balance of sweet and sour, making it an incredibly addictive record that’s found its way into my summer rotation.
But it could have been quite different in the hands of another producer. I hear the name T-Bone Burnett thrown around a lot in reviews of Americana and indie-folk type music, though I can’t say I’ve heard a whole lot of his work myself. He’s got a very specific vision for the albums he produces that could have been at odds with a more pop-leaning group, but that I think helps a great deal to keep their sound from getting too saccharine or too sparse. Melodically, roughly half of these songs have that sort of quality where you can imagine hearing them on the radio 40 or 50 years ago, without anything trying too hard to be modern or to sound deliberately dated in that cheeky way that some artists can do when taking on a style that hearkens back to a more innocent time. (The lone exception to this rule is a deliberate one, due to it being a cover of an Everly Brothers song, interestingly enough a group that the Sisters get compared to a lot due to their sibling harmonies.) Lyrically, the tried and true themes of getting into bad relationships and wishing you could get out of them, then crying in your bed late at night after realizing you got out too soon, permeates this album, with only the cheery Gospel song at the end of the album (in and of itself an old-school country thing to do) clearly breaking that mold. It’s really more of a compilation of songs the sisters wrote with a few well-chosen covers that represent the feistier side of their personalities (and a co-write of sorts with none other than Bob Dylan – more on that later), than it is an “album” in the conceptual sense, though that’s sort of how albums were made back in the day anyway. Given this formula, the ratio of killer to filler is thankfully high, and only at one or two points do I feel like there might be one song too many that was recorded to pad out the length of the record. Even though the focus here is more on vocals than musicianship, the Sisters come across as if they were fronting a full band, which sort of makes me hope that some of the session players Burnett helped them to assemble for this project and/or that went out on the road with the ladies eventually become frequent enough collaborators that they become honest-to-goodness band members. Then again, The Secret Sisters are a young enough act that they could still be finding their voice, so it might be too early for them to pin themselves down to a particular sound. All I know is that I’m engrossed in most of the sounds they’ve chosen to make on Put Your Needle Down, and it gives me high hopes for their future.
1. Rattle My Bones
The opening track, while not written by the Sisters, is an excellent introduction to their sound and their sisterly harmonies. They got the song on loan from Brandi Carlile, an artist they’ve apparently been fans of for a while. Curiously, Carlile herself doesn’t appear to have recorded the song, but there’s live video of her performing it on YouTube, and it is a SMOKIN’ HOT thing to behold. The Sisters’ version is a little more relaxed than that, but still very up-beat, with its peppy electr4ic guitar riff, its excited “Hey!”s in the chorus, and the way the two of them hold a note together as they belt out “Oh yeah!” in the very same. This is one of those songs about wanting someone beyond all rhyme or reason, even though you know it’s bad for you. It’s a staple of the country music diet, perhaps, but a very good example of the trop nonetheless, due to the way its rhymes just seem to roll off of the tongue: “You rattle my bones/Sink my heart like a ten-pound stone/Sometimes wish I’d left you alone.” There’s an intriguing, albeit somewhat corny, music video to go along with this one, featuring the Sisters performing in a prison (Johnny Cash homage, perhaps?). Meanwhile a budding romance is shown between a black inmate who was otherwise preoccupied with the book he was reading, and a white woman who somehow slips past the guards’ watchful eyes, starts a dance routine with the guy, and gets the crowd all riled up. (I like to think we live in a day and age where interracial relationships are commonplace enough to not ruffle feathers… but then I read the comments on that YouTube video and suddenly my hope for humanity got rather dim. Just don’t scroll down if you choose to go view it.)
Speaking of forbidden relationships taking place in the South, this one’s all about a town on the Mississippi/Alabama border where young couples would apparently sneak off to back in the old days, to get married without their parents’ consent. (For those wondering, that’s an uppercase “I”, not a lower-case “L”, so the town’s name is pronounced “Eye-OOH-ka”, not “LOO-ka”. And yes, it’s a real place.) This is definitely one of the darker tracks on the album, with the bass and drums bumping about during the verse to help us visualize a clandestine escape under cover of night, and the violins ratcheting up the tension during the chorus, particularly when the ladies shift the melody up an octave just to drive home the urgency of the situation. They’re not shy about depicting the abusive situation that this young girl is getting away from – the phrase “My daddy finally knocked a little sense right into me” is as disturbingly literal as it is figurative.
3. Dirty Lie
This would be the Bob Dylan co-write that I mentioned earlier, though it isn’t a co-write in the traditional sense. More like a leftover scrap of a song that Dylan started back in the 80s and never finished (he must have a ton of those by now!), and apparently T Bone’s people called Dylan’s people and made arrangements for the Sisters to put some finishing touches on it. I’m not one of those folks who worships the ground Dylan walks on, but I can’t deny his influence on a staggering number of songwriters today, so I can imagine how much the ladies probably geeked out over this opportunity. The end result is a song that strays a bit from their country roots and into more jazzy, troublemaking territory, with a slow, shuffling pace and a bit of ornery electric guitar just to drive home the cruel nature of the song. It’s basically about plausible deniability – some dude wants to continue a relationship with a woman and is claiming that they were in love, but her disinterested response is that she never loved him, “And whosoever told you told a dirty lie.” The overall feel of it reminds me of the bonus track “Button” from The Lone Bellow‘s debut last year, and even though it took two “out-of-character” songs for me to think about it, I really would love it if The Secret Sisters and The Lone Bellow toured together, because their “in-character” songs would work incredibly well together.
4. The Pocket Knife
Speaking of making trouble, this song’s about as rebellious as the Sisters get. It was my first impression of the duo, since they opened with it in concert, and it’s got a delightfully sinister melody to it, marching along at a stubbornly defiant pace as the young protagonist of the song insists that her parents had better not try to marry her off yet because she’s more into her shiny silver blade than the white fabric of any wedding dress. I’m not sure if the titular knife is meant as a veiled threat, or just a symbol of youthful rebellion. Either way, the ladies harmonize their hearts out and it sends chills up my spine and the whole thing is just freakin’ awesome. I was quite surprised, well after I had settled on this song as my favorite on the album, to discover that it was written by none other than PJ Harvey, whose original recording appeared on Uh Huh Her back in 2004. That may actually be the key to understanding what these ladies have in common with Nickel Creek – taking a song from well outside their preferred genre and reworking it to make complete sense within that genre. Harvey’s original version had a bit of a swampy feel to it already, so while the cover version paints with a few more colors due to the vocal harmonies and the twangy instruments accompanying it, nothing about it feels untrue to what I’m guessing was Harvey’s original intent. (Aside from perhaps the removal of a line contain an f-bomb. Which I get the impression is one of her favorite words, but it isn’t really the Sisters’ style.) It’s catchy, but far from poppy, as the fiddle and slide guitar manage to churn up one hell of a dissonant racket by the time it’s over.
5. Let There Be Lonely
Here’s where you really get into that classic country, cry-in-your-beer sort of mood. It’s a bit abrupt, having such a lovelorn and hopeless-sounding song coming after such a staunchly feminist and rebellious one, though both types of songs definitely have their place in the group’s repertoire. At first, the slow, steel guitar-drenched misery seems almost overly indulgent, even masochistic, and the ladies were quite aware of this when they sang it live, even going so far as to poke fun at how depressing they knew it was. Sure, lots of people feel deep pain over a rough breakup, or when their singleness just drags on and on with no end in sight, but get a load of this: “Let there be hurtin’, I’m craving the tears/That have burned in my eyes for so long/I want to feel every drop of the pain/As I cry, as I cry.” As first I was like, “Take some Prozac, lady!”, but then a single line unlocked it all for me: “It’s the only way out of here.” Suddenly I realized it wasn’t about wallowing in the pain and misery; it was about ripping the band-aid off, getting rid of your delusions about whether a relationship is really over, and starting to move on. One of those five stages of grief, I guess. It’s still probably not the healthiest thing to get this song stuck in your head when you’re going through a depression or something… but from where I stand, it makes me feel a heck of a lot of empathy. Plus it’s just so darn pretty.
6. Black and Blue
The Sisters revisit classic “girl group” territory on this super-catchy song, which makes great use of their charming ability to stretch words out in to several syllables. You’ll be singing along in no time as they plead for their baby not to say goodbye. Thankfully, the term “black and blue” is figurative rather than literal here – because it would be a little more twisted than I think I could handle for such a sweet-sounding song to be about domestic abuse. It’s more that a woman is beating herself up over questions of how a once loving relationship slipped so far into the doldrums that he’s now on the verge of leaving her. I love that this is such an unabashed pop song, but there’s still an emphasis on live instrumentation, complete with modest guitar solo, and nobody’s trying to diminish the Southern origins of the song for the sake of radio play (which would almost certainly happen if some Hollywood-type producer was trying to market the next Shania Twain).
7. Lonely Island
If “The Pocket Knife” stirred your inner feminist, and the pair of breakup songs that followed made you want to remind the ladies that they don’t need to man to live a fulfilling life, then a little bit of you might die inside upon hearing this song, because it is just hell-bent on insisting that a poor, lonely soul will literally keel over and die like a starving sailor stranded on a desert island, if they don’t get some of that sweet, sweet lovin’, STAT. As ridiculously melancholy as it may sound, I was actually quite captivated by how effectively the Sisters managed to make this one sound like it could have been recorded decades ago, when we didn’t really question how co-dependent these sorts of sad-sack love songs were because pop music hadn’t gotten that cynical yet. Here’s the twist: This song actually was recorded decades ago, by The Everly Brothers. The Sisters have learned more than a thing or two from the way those guys harmonized, so it’s a fitting tribute. Maybe your inner feminist can rest easy knowing it was originally the pathetic pining of a few men? Honestly, getting your priorities so jacked up that you end up thinking romance is necessary to survival can happen to the brightest and best of both genders. Heartbreak is the great equalizer. It makes no logical sense, but a lot of us have felt that way at one point or another, and the song is incredibly effective in conveying exactly how it feels.
8. I Cannot Find a Way
Here, the perspective has been flipped and now it’s the woman trying to say goodbye to a dying relationship. The back half of the album pretty much stays the course subject-wise, plus it’s similar territory to what was already explored in “Rattle My Bones” (you know someone’s not right for you, but your heart can’t seem to let them go), so there’s bound to be at least one casualty among all the similarities, and this so-so song is it. Nothing noticeably wrong with it at first – pleasant vocal harmonies, once doing doing the syllable-stretching thing to great effect during the chorus… but actually, that might be it. The pace and structure of the song are so similar to “Black and Blue”, especially in the lead-up to the chorus which uses almost the exact same melody, that the song doesn’t really stand on its own. It’s a nice enough listen as filler goes… but it’s still filler.
9. If I Don’t
Here, the question of whether to quit you becomes more of an ultimatum, as a woman who clearly knows she’s holding the cards in a relationship gives the good some good reasons to either shape up or ship out. It’s good to hear a bit of the sass come back after several tracks of “woe is me”. She’s reached a point where her own self-respect compels her to stop putting up with a guy’s excuses and his all-around unpleasant behavior, and the trump card she plays is that she knows no other woman would put up with his crap. It might be a bit of a low blow to insinuate that your partner should stay with you because he has no prospects elsewhere… plus the logic of that kind of unravels, because it’s also admitting that you’re merely settling and it raises uncomfortable questions about what you still see in the guy in the first place. (But there I go applying to cold logic to silly pop songs again!) Tempo-wise, this one could use a bit more oomph and some more confident instrumentation, but it’s sturdy enough and it gets by well enough on its wry sense of humor.
10. Good Luck, Good Night, Goodbye
I wanted to dislike this one on principle at first, because it opens with a rather lazy rhyme : “I know it’s not a perfect world/But tonight, I’m the perfect girl.” It just sounds like the sort of lyrical punt that would start off an air-headed Top 40 pop song about hittin’ up the clubs for a casual fling because you only live once or some crap like that. But it gets better. This one is pretty much about picking up guys in a bar… or at least attempting to. The bouncy, flirty mood of the song quite amusingly turns to minor key despair (in a rather brilliant move, from a musical perspective) as the verse shifts into the chorus, and the few minutes spent with a prospective lover reveal that he’s just as shallow and hopeless as the rest of him, so she wisely bids him farewell and moves on. The second verse of this song is one of the few times I can think of where lyrics that might be meaningless in most songs due to their use of “yeahs” and “oh”s and so forth that generally are just there to make the vocalists sound good, actually end up depicting her body language as the interaction goes on: “Hey, hey… oh-oh… Ooh-wee… no, no! Yeah, yeah… oh my, my… Good luck, goodnight, goodbye.” So simple, it’s genius.
11. Bad Habit
The longest song on the album (which is still just shy of five minutes… these ladies aren’t terribly long-winded) is also its slowest, taking the semi-bluesy mood of “Dirty Lie” and drawing it out into a languid lament about… you guessed it, a guy who is as hard to kick as an addiction. While the subject’s been run into the ground at this point, this one’s a good vocal showcase for the sisters, with both of them taking turns at the lead, and showing off their duskier low ranges before things come to a climax on the final chorus,l where they once again do the octave-jump thing that worked so well in “Iuka”. The brooding electric guitar and nervous strings add a whole lot of dark color to the song, while the sun briefly breaks through the storm clouds as the melody turns ever so slightly towards “meek country ballad” during the bridge section. The genre-bending is more subtle here than it might be for a lot of artists who are advertised using an “X meets Y” sort of proposition. You get the sense that the style of the song is chosen to fit its mood, and not just because it would be cool to mix two things that don’t usually match. I could go for more of a gutsy vocal finish on this one – it’s admirable, but there are some blues singers who could probably show them how to go from sweet singing to ragged sanging in a way that truly surprises the audience. Still, despite playing it a bit safe, this one leaves an impression!
12. River Jordan
And now for something completely different! Who’s up for a good old river baptism? It may seem weird to tack an upbeat Gospel song onto such a long list of heartbreak songs. But even if it makes no narrative sense, you can’t deny that church music is part of country music’s DNA. Slipping a religious song into an otherwise “secular” record is probably easier to pull of in this genre than most, because even for Southerners who aren’t necessarily religious, it’s just sort of there in the surrounding culture. Despite sticking out like a sore thumb, this is a fun way to end the album, and I’m actually surprised that the Sisters wrote it, since its plainspoken story of Jesus getting baptized in the River Jordan and its chorus inviting everyone else to come on down and get washed clean is completely different from the usual tone of their songwriting. It reminds me of how “From This Valley” came at me out of nowhere on The Civil Wars‘ last record. I refer to both as “Gospel” due to their lyrical content and their Southern church-y sort of feel, but it’s not the kind of Gospel with organs and huge choir arrangements and that sort of thing. Just the two ladies harmonizing as wonderfully as they always do, and some subdued but soulful guitar playing and the drums shuffling along to keep the time – uncomplicated, but refreshing all the same. It’s a nice little redemptive moment to close out the album and perhaps give a nod to a little slice of Alabama culture that is meaningful to them.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Rattle My Bones $1.75
Dirty Lie $.75
The Pocket Knife $2
Let There Be Lonely $1.50
Black and Blue $1.50
Lonely Island $1.25
I Cannot Find a Way $.50
If I Don’t $.75
Good Luck, Good Night, Goodbye $1.25
Bad Habit $1
River Jordan $1.25
Laura Rogers: Vocals
Lydia Rogers: Vocals, acoustic guitar
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: