New West Records BO6XPTH66X, LP $20.98, Amazon.com
When it comes to harmonizing singers, who's your favorite group? The Beach Boys? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young? The Fleet Foxes, who finally put out a somewhat troublesome yet utterly charming third album this week? My personal pick—John Doe and Exene from X—may be off the beaten path, but the way their two voices combined into a ragged yet sublime whole added an extra dimension to the sound of classic ‘80s LA punk rock and has always been one of the great joys of my musical education.
Then I heard this new album from The Secret Sisters, You Don't Own Me Anymore, and now I need to make up a new list from scratch.
I've never heard of these two real-life sisters before, but the instant I surrendered to their delicate, expressive and almost flawless voices I became hypnotized by the sheer beauty of these songs. It doesn't matter that I'm not the biggest country-western fan in the world—it's more Americana/folk than mainstream C&W, anyway. This is one of those rare cases, like hearing Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road for the first time, where you forget about inconsequential things like musical genres and you just let the music grab your heart and squeeze it like an infant who has just squeezed your outstretched index finger for the first time. All your preconceptions vanish as you melt inside of the moment.
Laura and Lydia Rogers may not be household names—yet. Their last album, 2014's Put Your Needle Down, failed to capture the attention of the music-lovin' masses due to record label miscalculations (let's call it the Big Star syndrome). In addition, there were nasty bits of business concerning a lawsuit with their ex-manager, which almost led to their bankruptcy. This album, their third, almost didn't get made under the pressing weight of "we're hanging it up for good because the music industry is evil." Nevertheless, they persisted.
Laura and Lydia certainly have an impressive musical pedigree. They were born and raised in Muscle Shoals, and many of their family members have played in various local bands such as The Happy Valley Boys. As little girls, they learned to sing at their local church. The sisters never dreamed of singing as a duo, and they pursued careers separately until fate brought them together for an audition in Nashville. That sealed the deal for them. When you hear their perfectly calibrated harmonies, you'll understand why contracts were immediately drawn.
With songs titled "Carry Me" and "Tennessee River Runs Low," you might expect a particularly strong vein of gospel as an underlying theme, especially when you consider the sisters' classic Southern upbringing. The faith is there, sitting quietly in the corner, but it's slightly overwhelmed by the huge cost of experience and personal loss that's described so economically in the lyrics. In "Mississippi," the song on the album that first captured my attention and caused me to swoon, the sisters warn that "All my life, I've never been a lucky man/Saw the back of my daddy's hand/Lost my mother to the Promised Land." Those lines are then followed with a chilling proclamation: "Never had a thing that was mine, until they handed me a baby, fine." There's a solemn Southern Gothic tinge to that, one that's not totally out of place with folk traditions, but the Rogers deliver it with a grace and honesty that completely avoids mawkishness. There's a toughness to it that's utterly believable, an almost implied aura of wisdom that comes from making it to the other side in one piece.
Perhaps this is why You Don't Own Me Anymore captured my imagination and admiration so quickly, and it's something that leads back to what makes Lucinda Williams so great—these may be "simple" people in "simple" worlds to those who are prone to being dismissive, but in a way these souls might one day be great and celebrated poets who possess the rare gift of extracting great meaning out of everyday tragedies and heartaches. These lyrics, in other words, take no short cuts—every word is precise and important and almost Faulknerian.
Fortunately, it's not all downbeat and straight out of the last couple of paragraphs of a Flannery O'Connor short story. "King Cotton," is all juke joint raucousness with its freewheeling banjo, upright piano and the giddy, half-drunk celebration of being "Alabama bound." The first single, "He's Fine," even opens with a subtle synthesizer foundation that creates a far more optimistic and somewhat modern mood throughout. While the songs seem to be their strongest when they focus on the harmonies and little else, it's also a relief that there are plenty of breaks from the sadness through tight, expert musicianship. Taken as a whole, however, this is still a rainy day album.
You Don't Own Me Anymore is their first release with New West Records, and hopefully it's the charm. Brandi Carlile, a singer-songwriter who's also an understated gem on the current folk scene, took the sisters under her wing and produced this album along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth. The sound quality is pure and glorious in its simplicity—the Rogers could have performed these 12 songs acapella and the emotion would have been relatively undiminished. It's clear, however, that the judicious use of talented musicians that include Carlile and the Hanseroth brothers supports the singers and expands their gorgeous tones in a way that will remind you of spare yet focused music produced by T-Bone Burnett in the last couple of decades.
In fact, You Don't Own Me Anymore reminds me a lot of Raising Sand from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, where Burnett served as producer. You listen for a few moments and think well, this isn't really my thing, but I'm intrigued. I'll give it a chance. Then, after two or three songs, you're under its spell and there's no turning back.