Artist: The Secret Sisters
Album: You Don’t Own Me Anymore
In Brief: A solid third effort from the Alabama country/folk duo. It doesn’t quite have the same edge as Put Your Needle Down, and as a result the songs can feel a bit samey after a while, but I get that pop/rock crossover appeal might not have been the intent here.
The three years between The Secret Sisters‘ second and third albums haven’t exactly been the happiest ones of their career. It’s bad enough when an underperforming album such as Put Your Needle Down (which I thought was a fine introduction to the band, but apparently not enough of their potential audience agreed) gets a band abruptly dropped from their record deal. It’s even worse when the trappings of the music business turn what once was a friendship into a bitter lawsuit, which happened when the duo decided to change managers at right around the same time. The resulting financial woes left the sisters’ career stalled out for a bit, which is a damn shame, since when I first heard them as a opening act for Nickel Creek‘s comeback tour in 2014, I was pretty sure they were on the verge of breakout success, at least within the alt-country/Americana corner of the music scene. Instead, they took a break for some much-needed healing, and then, bolstered by the support of musical allies Brandi Carlile and John Paul White, as well as a number of fans they’d managed to maintain despite the setbacks, they Kickstartered their third record into being at some point last year. Who needs bigshot record deals, am I right?
The appropriately titled You Don’t Own Me Anymore may not seem like a radical change for the two ladies at first – it’s certainly informed by the betrayal they felt at not being able to get out from under the oppressive thumb of the industry’s ugly side, but for the most part it’s still got the expected, melancholy country music with arresting harmonies that the duo is known for. What’s changed is that with Brandi Carlile (who co-wrote and/or just plain let them borrow a few songs from their previous record) at the production helm instead of T-Bone Burnett, there seems to be a little bit less of an intent to rope in indie pop or rock fans with big radio-friendly hooks or left-field cover tunes, like the PJ Harvey cover that gave Put Your Needle Down its name. Despite how much I loathe most country-pop, I actually considered it a good thing that their second album was so packed with bright pop choruses and a few edgier rock or “alt-country”-leaning moments. It didn’t feel like it was pandering to modern radio audiences; instead it was more like an amalgamation of throwback pop and country sounds with a slight “indie” vibe to it here and there. This album, by comparison, finds the sisters much more comfortable in the rootsy sounds of their home state, name-checking their southern upbringing on several occasions early in the record, and overall just feeling like a record with a lot less to prove to its audience. While this means the hooks aren’t as immediate this time around and I don’t think the record is as strong song-for-song as their last one, I do have to admire them for sticking to their guns and shrugging off any pressure to be something they’re not.
The subject matter might actually benefit from a little more diversity here than their last record did. With few exceptions, most of Put Your Needle Down was about relationships and breakups, and the sad, lonely moments after breakups. Romance gone wrong still plays a part here, but you can just as easily interpret a few of the more “down and out” songs as laments over lost friendships or over people who never loved you in the first place trying to tell you you’ll never amount to anything. There’s also the requisite cover of a classic folk song, a startling murder ballad with an interesting connection to a track from their previous album, and of course a hymn at the end to wrap things up with a little hope. The musical performances (mostly done by session players, since The Secret Sisters are more of a vocal duo than an instrument-centered one) and the chorus melodies may not wow me quite as much here, and unfortunately I do find myself mentally checking out somewhere around the last quarter of the album. So while this is an authentic record with some admirable songwriting, it’s not necessarily one I’m going to recommend heartily to people who aren’t normally into this kind of music. I enjoy the overall mood of this album, and the sentiments being expressed, more so than I enjoy it in the same “put it on when I want to sing along to something” sense that I did with their last one. If you’re more into country and folk music than I am, and you recognize enough of this group’s influences that their music brings back warm memories, you may get into this a lot more than I did. With those parameters in place, let’s discuss the songs that came out of the sisters’ dark night of the soul.
1. Tennessee River Runs Low
The first track is definitely a case where I’m glad that the sisters cared very little about crossover success. With its oddball “Oh-de-oh-de-oh” vocal hook, and its jaunty, banjo laden-rhythm, this song pretty clearly aims to sound like it’s an unearthed relic from a long-forgotten songbook. It opens much like a live performance would, pairing the sisters’ haunting harmonies against a moody, yet strangely bouncy, minor-key melody, with a lone acoustic guitar to accompany them, then the “full band” treatment is given as the banjo and percussion are brought in after the first verse. The lyrics prefer odd bits of geographic detail to lowest-common-denominator relate-ability, expressing a wish that if they could be any river in the world, they’d be the beloved Tennessee River that flows right through their proverbial backyard in northern Alabama. This song strikes just the right balance of haunting and cutesy, definitely mugging for the camera with their melodramatic vocals, but also expressing their fair share of sorrow and hinting at skeletons in the closet with lyrics like, “I bury secrets deep/I keep them down where the catfish creep/Where the rolling tide/Can’t reach the things that I hide.” This one probably doesn’t have a ghost of a prayer at radio, but I’m willing to bet it brings down the house as a concert opener.
The second track on this album is downright disturbing. It’s also one of the best things the sisters have ever written. Here the duo follows up on their previous album’s second track, “Iuka”, which told the tale of a young couple changing their names to run away and get married in a town just across the Alabama/Mississippi state line where apparently the legal age to do so was a few years lower. This one is told from the perspective of the abusive father who gets wise to their game and decides to chase after them, and it’s a pretty grim story. It starts and ends on a sympathetic note, explaining how little the guy had growing up aside from constant abuse at the hand of his own alcoholic father. Basically, he became the beast he hated, and while the only thing in the world he actually loves is his little girl, he’s apparently willing to kill her before letting anyone take her away from him. “Brought you in this world and I can take you from it just the same”, is his haunting refrain as sung by the sisters in the chorus. I love how much this song does musically with pretty simple instrumentation – just your basic acoustic guitar/drum/bass set up, really, but the way that the acoustic echoes the verse melody in its solo during the bridge really helps to bring the song to a haunting climax. The song ends with the grizzly deed done – more hinted at than explicitly described, but still with harrowing implications as he realizes in a rare sober moment what a horrible thing he’s done, and pleads in the shadow of a maple tree (presumably the place of his daughter’s burial?) to have his baby girl brought back to him.
3. Carry Me
This simple ballad, which is about being lost, feeling guilty, and wanting your father to carry you home. Taken all by itself, it would be pretty to interpret this one as having religious overtones. But there has to be a reason they put this one right after “Mississippi”. I really think that adds some context – however sad and mildly creepy it might be – to help the song stand out. While I don’t think the song is specifically meant as a direct continuation of the same story, it’s hard not to imagine the daughter’s dying wish be for her father (who regrets his actions a moment too late) to take her home. The song’s probably more uplifting if you imagine the father as God rescuing his child from sin, than it is if you imagine a human father carrying his own child’s corpse. But I like that they left it open to interpretation. Musically, not as much about this song stands out to me – I’d have done a little more with the string section that underpins it, perhaps. But I do like the slow, mournful electric guitar solo in its bridge.
4. King Cotton
In case the duo’s Southern pride wasn’t obvious from the album’s first track, this unabashed ode to the state of Alabama pretty much seals the deal. I’m not an expert on the sub-genres of country music, so I don’t know for sure what “honky-tonk” actually sounds like, but the plunking banjo and saloon-like piano stylings here resemble what my mind would expect that genre to sound like, at least. What’s amusing is that this was one of the songs that was actually record for the album in Seattle, of all places – which actually does make sense, because they mention that “these northern days are dark” as one of the reasons they miss their home while they’re out touring. (They’ve said that if they’d recorded it back home, it might have come out too Southern, and I honestly can’t imagine how a song would sound more Southern than this, but as we’ve already established, I’m from California and have no real expertise on Southern music.) I actually didn’t know what the phrase “King Cotton” meant until I looked it up and discovered that it was a slogan used during the Civil War to represent the Confederacy’s hopes of their prime export making them economically strong enough to survive their secession from the United States. One could now see it as a sign of their extreme hubris, I guess, though the song doesn’t really get into all that. It’s simply nostalgic for “King Cotton and Queen Anne’s Lace” as natural markers of the place these two ladies came from, and there’s no apparent political or social commentary to it. One has to admit that 2017 is kind of an awkward time for Southern nostalgia… but I’m honestly not sure the sisters could have anticipated that when recording this.
5. Kathy’s Song
As with the covers on their previous album, I actually had no idea that this one wasn’t an original until I looked at the liner notes. Turns out this one’s a classic Simon & Garfunkel song – and I like a fair amount of classic Simon & Garfunkel songs, so I’m a bit ashamed of myself for not being familiar with this one. I can’t argue with Paul Simon‘s poetic songwriting, and I suppose one could argue that The Secret Sisters reinterpreting the work of a classic folk duo known for their harmonies makes as much sense here as it did on their cover of The Everly Brothers‘ “Lonely Island”, which I enjoyed even before I knew the song’s history. But I can’t say that I’m all that taken with the results here. It’s the kind of cover that seems like it was done because the artist liked the song, and that’s about it. The acoustic guitar doesn’t really do anything revelatory with the soft fingerpicking style of the original, and at times it seems almost inaudible, so the focus here is really on the vocals, which are pretty, but since the song is just a series of verses with no refrain, there’s not much variance in the melody to add their usual melancholy drama to. I respect them paying homage to an influence, but I also feel like a cover version of a classic song needs to put at least a little bit of a personal stamp on it, at least if it wants to come across as anything other than modest karaoke.
6. He’s Fine
I actually hadn’t realized until I was going over the album one last time to prepare for the review that the duo has shown remarkable restraint by not including a breakup song or a “you done me wrong” type of relationship song until track 6. This one finds them up to their old tricks, pining for some guy named “Davy White” who made a lot of promises he never planned to keep, stringing along the poor woman who had put all of her eggs in that one basket, and then dumping her for a fling with some Louisiana woman that turned out to be “the one” for him, because they’re still together and whichever one of the sisters was unfortunate enough to date him is lying alone in a hotel room somewhere, feeling more than a bit jealous. A song like this calls for a bit more attitude – while it’s upbeat, the sisters’ melody is honestly rather passive here, and the apparent sarcasm in the rather dull observation that “he’s fine” – just fine, I guess, not great, not awful – doesn’t really seem to land. This one feels like it needs to be about how the woman scorned is not fine, rather than how the guy’s doing alright for himself. There just isn’t much of anything memorable going on here.
7. To All the Girls Who Cry
While “Kathy’s Song” may have been the classic folk group cover on this album, this slow, tear-jerking piano ballad feels more like it occupies the same emotional space that “Lonely Island” did. Other than the piano, and the saddest of all instruments, the cello, the spotlight is once again on the vocals and not so much on the arrangement, and sends the melody bends and twists in all the right gut-wrenching ways, I think it’s an excellent case of less being more. There’s a fine line between compellingly sad and just plain manipulative that songs in this genre have to walk, but I think by keeping the music stripped down and keeping the lyrical focus on solidarity between women who know what it’s like to be dumped like a hot potato by a no-good lying liar, the song avoids going to deep into self-pity territory, even while the (I’m guessing?) more personal breakup song preceding it helps to inform the sorrow being expressed here. I like that this song encourages tears as part of the healing process. It’s a vulnerable moment, but not a weak one – there’s a quiet strength to it. It feels like one sister is putting her arm around the other and helping to uncork the flood of emotions that needs to come out for the sake of her own mental health.
8. Little Again
Speaking of tugging at the heartstrings, this folksy ballad does so not by lamenting lost love, but instead by lamenting lost youth. It’s a common topic in several genres of music, and one that I always seem to relate to, and for some reason it works especially well in country music, where it just seems natural to point out the little details of one’s humble origins and wish they could return to the simple life you once knew. I should probably note that while The Secret Sisters are good at dropping little details about the colors and shapes of the rivers and farms they knew in their youth, and the rusty old John Deere tractor and ’63 Chevy their family considered transportation back then, they don’t load their songs down with lists of details simply as a form of pandering. Nor is their music excessively twangy just for its own sake. Eight tracks in, this is actually the first time I can recall hearing a steel guitar – and it’s an instrument I generally enjoy because it adds a subtle texture to a song like this without going overboard into stereotypically twangy territory. For the most part, the simple guitar strumming in 6/8 time and the nostalgic whistling are the most characteristic elements of this song. And of course the sisters have to juxtapose the simple joy of their shared childhood with the sadness of spending endless days on the road, missing home, and wondering if the hustle to make it in the music business is really worth leaving that homespun, childlike innocence behind. As they themselves admit, their audience shows up for the darkness, so it even creeps into a song like this which would otherwise be a happy-go-lucky stroll down memory lane.
9. You Don’t Own Me Anymore
The title track is really the closest thing that the back half of the album gets to being upbeat. it’s really more of a mid-tempo, slow-burning, vaguely swampy sort of an anthem, that gets off to a bare-bones start with a rather dry electric guitar, some sparse percussion, and a downright odd chord progression that takes a few listens to really get a feel for. But it’s outside of the sisters’ usual box, and I enjoy it for that. While the lyrics seem to focus on finally being free from an overly controlling former lover, the subtext regarding their former label and manager, and the ensuing misery that their “ownership” of the sisters put them through, is pretty obvious. The duo can sometimes feel like they’re being a bit too passive in lamenting awful things that happen to women – whether it’s a bad boyfriend taking a naive woman for a ride, or simply the ravages of time stealing away one’s childhood. So it’s nice to occasionally hear a song that takes more of an active role in resisting the negativity. I think there’s a lot of strength to the line “Now I’ve learned my lesson, love is not possession”, because I feel like especially in parts of our society like wide swaths of the south where more antiquated notions of gender roles are still prevalent, being owned and controlled by a man may still be what a lot of woman unfortunately get taught is the best they can expect out of life. I’m not going to say this is some sort of groundbreaking feminist anthem or anything, but I like the affirmation that you can’t find true love until you learn how to love yourself and to firmly say “no” to those who treat you with anything less than love. Also, I like the sorta-bluesy guitar solo as the song finally gets ramped up in the energy department. Not a lot of tracks in the back half of this album really make space to emphasize the musicianship, so I really notice it when this track does.
10. The Damage
Unfortunately we’re back to playing the hapless victim here. Despite some poetic lyrical turns, the overall message of this one seems to be “You did me wrong and I’ll never get over the wounds you gave me”, and that’s a bit frustrating, coming after the strength of the title track, though it is on par with the sisters’ usual, I guess. The ladies did reasonably well with their sorta-bluesy take on Americana on tracks like “Dirty Lie” and “Bad Habit” from their previous album, but here, by stripping it down to perfunctory piano and acoustic guitar (which, as in “Kathy’s Song”, borders on inaudible at times), the song never quite lives up to the mood its lyrics are trying to convey. I get that they’re going for a late-night, off-the-main-drag music club sort of a feel, but there’s no flair to the instrumentation, no room for even a brief bit of soloing, really nothing going on other than the instruments keeping time for the too-perfect harmonies. This song needs to be messier. It needs to do something startling to communicate that things were not left in a neatly manicured state when that gaping hole in someone’s heart was left open.
11. ‘Til It’s Over
The slightly sweeter, but still undoubtedly sad, melody of this song brings the sisters back into their musical comfort zone – unabashedly weepy ballads. At this point it’s honestly feeling like more of the same to me, but I can’t deny that they do this sort of thing well, and I’m not as bothered by the pitch-perfect matching vocals here, because it is the sisters’ main selling point. I had mistaken this one for a breakup song, since it seems to be their default topic, but actually both sisters are married in real life, and I think this one’s actually more about trying to keep a long-distance relationship alive, rather than missing someone who has walked out on one of them. They’re touring musicians, which can be hard on any marriage, and I believe one of the ladies has a husband on active military duty, which can be stressful for the spouse left at home hoping they won’t get the dreaded phone call no military family member ever wants to receive. In that sense, this song is coming from a truer place than a lot of their usual breakup fare. Still, being sandwiched between two very slow and sparse songs doesn’t do it any favors, and it’s at this point that find myself checking the tracklisting and finding there’s still one more song to go, when I actually think this one very well could have closed the album and felt like a decent place to wrap it up.
12. Flee as a Bird
Save for some very light and slowly strummed banjo chords, this closing hymn is completely acapella, meant to pay homage to the religious aspect of their upbringing like “River Jordan” did on their previous album, but musically it’s pretty much the polar opposite. Thematically, the old-timey lryics (it was written in the mid-19th century) may well be a better fit this time around – so many of the songs leading up to it are about being lonely, needing comfort, and not finding it in the arms of selfish or absent lovers, and this one is about taking refuge in God’s arms and letting all of that shame and sorrow go. It makes a lot more sense than Put Your Needle Down‘s string of romantic mishaps preceding a song about baptism. But then again, “River Jordan” was more fun, and that album just plain had better momentum leading up to the end. Even though this track is short, and sweet in its own mournful, reverent way, the fatigue I feel from the songs leading up to it kind of robs it of its impact as a finale. They needed one or the other of these last two songs – not both.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Tennessee River Runs Low $1.75
Carry Me $1
King Cotton $1.25
Kathy’s Song $.50
He’s Fine $.25
To All the Girls Who Cry $1.25
Little Again $1.25
You Don’t Own Me Anymore $1.50
The Damage $.25
‘Til It’s Over $.50
Flee as a Bird $.75
Laura Rogers: Vocals
Lydia Rogers: Vocals, acoustic guitar
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: