Three years ago, it looked like it was all over for The Secret Sisters. Disappointing sales and iffy reviews for their last album had cost Laura and Lydia Rogers their major label deal, they'd filed for bankruptcy and Laura was cleaning houses to pay her bills. However, when their friend, Brandi Carlile, offered to both produce and play on their album, things began to look up and the fans came out in force for their Pledge Music campaign. Signed to leading indie New West, they picked themselves sup and went back to work creating the tellingly titled You Don't Own Me Anymore.
It's a magnificent resurrection, with songs about deception, betrayal and facing down adversity nodding to the trials along the way. It opens with a wordless choir backing before, backed by banjo, acoustic bass, guitar, piano and drums, the pair's harmonies take over for 'Tennessee River Runs Low', a jauntily old fashioned sounding number that - complete with an oh-dee-oh-dee-oh refrain - uses the river to personify a stormy relationship.
It's not the only nod to their home state of Alabama. the banjo-led bouncy 'King Cotton' with its plinketty saloon piano and line about Dixie's golden crown all about finding renewed strength in its southern charms.
It is, however, one of the few lyrically upbeat numbers. Featuring French horn, cello and harmonium, 'He's Fine' may be have a jogging music al setting but the song tells of a woman being betrayed and abandoned for another by the man she was supposed to marry, as she sings away her heartache on stage. A cynical eye's turned on romance with the crooning slow sad sway of 'To All The Girls Who Cry', which, sparsely backed by just piano, upright bass and cello, feels like something from some 30s southern ballroom.
Then there's the acoustic jazzy blues feel of 'The Damage' as, while not necessarily regretting the break-up ("I'm not sorry the two of us have parted, I'm only sorry you made the choice"), they also sing "if it's a race we were running, you've already won, shot me with the starting gun." And, while, with a brief handclaps and foot stamp into and the only number to feature electric guitar, the title song may sound like liberation from chains, it's actually about the difficulty in letting go of the smooth-tongued Romeo that won and broke her heart.
It's at its darkest with the stark strummed folk of 'Mississippi', essentially a retelling of 'Iuka' off Put Your Needle Down, a murder ballad about a father killing his daughter and lover as they attempt to elope, but here reworked from the perspective of paternal possessiveness, balancing the ominous line "Brought you into this world and I can take you from it just the same" with a backstory of an abusive childhood and loss, the last verse steeped in regret.
Even their choice of a cover, a lovely reading of Paul Simon's 'Kathy's Song' accompanied by just guitar and cello, is steeped in melancholy with its lines about "writing songs I can't believe with words that tear and strain to rhyme." However, just as Simon finds salvation in her love, so other songs here have a glimmer of hope.
Again featuring French horn and cello, 'Carry Me' is an acoustic slow march steeped in world weariness and spiritual imagery ("I'm tired like a sinner. I'm cold and my money's all gone") in which the singer, "ashamed of the things I've done", comes to understand that to find salvation and shelter, either in this world or the next, that you cannot run from it, as "If I keep on hiding how will I be known."
Likewise, while it's possible to read the crooned, guitar and saloon piano backed 'Til It's Over' as denial of being abandoned, lines like "'Til he's home again in my arms I'm not missing out on anything" and wanting to be left dreaming of her man 'So far away", it more readily feels like a song about knowing he'll be one day be back in her arms as he is in her dreams.
Memories of happy times easing the troubles of the day are at the heart of the strummed cowboy fast waltz 'Little Again', slide, organ and whistling colouring a song about remembering childhood days of "Riding along in a little red wagon… attached to the back of that dirty old rusty John Deere" and "kids shifting gears in a '63 Chevy" to bring cheer when you "wake up in some broken city with nothing but home on your mind."
It ends with just the sisters' voices and Lydia's banjo on the southern hymnal tones of Flee As A Bird and its theme of realising that, even in the darkness, weary of sin, if you call "the Savior will hear thee" and "wipe every tear." It's a stunning close to a truly outstanding album and a comeback that surely has a divine blessing.
|Susan Kane: Mostly Fine||Ollie King: Diffractions|
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