Two of country music’s most acclaimed female singer-songwriters who just happen to be sisters, after a couple of dozen album releases between them (all of them solo releases) have finally decided to bite the bullet and pool their talents for a collaboration in the shape of a proper studio album. The so-called “sissy record” has been trailed since last autumn, thus eagerly awaited, but also the source of much speculation as to what form such an album might take. It turns out that it was recorded in LA during summer 2016, with Teddy Thompson in the producer’s chair, which may come as something of a surprise. But perhaps the biggest surprise, considering both Shelby and Allison’s award-winning status as writers, is that they’ve chosen to present an album consisting almost entirely of covers – and at that, not even mainstream country covers but an exceedingly eclectic selection taking in Kurt Cobain, Nick Cave and the Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires team alongside The Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan. Even those from the country end of the spectrum aren’t all that well known, with the possible exception of Jessi Colter’s I’m Looking For Blue Eyes. It’s evident that a lot of thought has gone into the sisters’ arrangements of these songs, not least because it’s obvious that they mean a lot to them personally, they address important themes that they’ve shared through common life experiences. There’s also a certain element of inevitable autobiographical journey here, a sharing of musical experiences too, that takes us from the music the sisters both grew up listening to, those signature sibling harmonies on the Louvin Brothers song (Every Time You Leave), and then on through the wistful Colter and Haggard songs in an often heart-rending portrayal of love, loss and hope that probably reaches its peak in the Isbell/Shires number The Color Of A Cloudy Day. Van Zandt’s somewhat more upbeat Lungs succeeds with its combination of lively observation and charm. Then, to take the curveball choices, the choice of title song is indicative, emblematic even, of the conflicting pulls of hope and despair that run through the rest of the album’s songs. Another particular triumph (maybe against the odds) is the Nirvana track Lithium, whose restless discordant progressions enable the sisters to produce some unforgettable sideways-clashing harmonies against the powerhouse electric guitars of Ben Peeler and Val McCallum.
This now brings me to remark on the disc’s musical settings. These are masterful, not least in that their acute sensitivity both informs and draws from the sisters’ interpretive insights. Teddy T’s production is an object lesson in less-is-more, for even though there might be up to six or seven musicians involved in any particular song’s arrangement he always makes space for the songs – and the voices – to breathe. From the cool gospel organ-infused My List to the ominous title song (a standout interpretation), and culminating in the album’s lone non-cover, the brooding (yet supportive) questioning of closing song Is It Too Much?, a telling co-write between Shelby and Allison reflecting the traumatic experience they both suffered as teenagers with the near-simultaneous loss of both parents.
In the end, even while recognising and acknowledging the crucial part played by the album’s skilled and genuinely understanding production and arrangements, it’s the intensely natural symbiosis of the sisters’ voices, the sublime sibling harmonies, the seamless switching-across of parts and almost automatic (but never auto-pilot) choice of interpretive direction, that we must celebrate most here as they share their chosen songs with us.
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