An early Merry Christmas to you – this 1993 tribute from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson for Willie’s 60th birthday is pretty great.
I saw the Secret Sisters — Laura and Lydia Rogers — live at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club in early May, opening for Nickel Creek. I wasn’t previously familiar with them, but I loved them. Their tight-knit harmonies were great, Laura had a great stage presence between songs, and the song-writing was strong. Small wonder, since the women are originally from Muscle Shoal, AL, but their band was good, too. Everything was forceful yet light, and you could understand the lyrics — it was a great show in every regard.
My friend — a woman, for whatever the diversity of our perspectives on this is worth — and I both thoroughly enjoyed the performance of “Rattle My Bones,” so at the merch table after the concert, I asked for whichever album that was on. Turns out that was “Put Your Needle Down,” out just three weeks before.
I think I bought the wrong album. In an interview with Billboard, Lydia Rogers acknowledged that this album is different from their first one, and worried that they might lose people because the duo wrote most of the songs themselves this time. Actually, I think the songwriting is very strong, and I commend the two for it. The vocals are wonderful, too. The problem is that the legendary T-Bone Burnett, the executive producer for the first album, was the hands-on producer for this second album. I hate to say it, but it sounds like virtually every other recent T-Bone Burnett album. Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the vocals, repetitive guitar rhythms, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound.
I actually like Burnett’s sound. It’s perfect for new, broader audiences, so if you don’t know who he is, you might love this album. The problem is, while he’s still doing wonders for movie and TV soundtracks, when it comes to producing albums, it feels like he’s coasting. His is an approach that would elevate almost anyone on country radio but more or less homogenizes true Americana talent. If you’re going to homogenize, do it this way, absolutely – but why homogenize if you don’t have to?
Burnett was also the executive producer, but not the producer, for the Secret Sisters’ eponymous 2010 first album — and it felt like a Burnett album would feel if he let a Bakersfield sound dominate his own. I love it. More importantly, the hands-on producer for that earlier album was David Cobb, who was also behind Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” (the best album of 2013), both of Sturgill Simpson’s amazing projects (the second-best albums of both 2013 and of 2014 so far), and a lot of work for Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings. Additionally, Country Hall of Fame pianist Pig Robbins and Waylon Jennings alum Robby Turner, both of whom joined Cobb on Sturgill’s debut album, played on the Sisters’ first album. Together, the three helped the Secret Sisters sound like a modernized, edgier, Patsy Cline if Patsy Cline were a soprano with a close-harmony backup. And while the sisters might claim they see that album as one of standards, their original “Tennessee Me” was absolutely great. Give that 2010 album even more confidence and turn its Bakersfield sound to alt-country, and that’s what I saw and loved last month in DC.
I wish 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down” gave me a similar feeling. But honestly, for a majority of the tracks, swap out their tight harmonies for a solo male voice and you’ve got actor Jeff Bridges’ eponymous, Burnett-produced 2011 album. Which I did like, just as I like this one — it’s just that neither are anything special. Again, the T Bone Burnett sound: Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the lead vocals, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound. Sometimes that really works, creating a great balance by swinging back and forth with a ’50s feel on “Good Luck, Good Night, Good Bye” — my favorite song after the driving “Rattle My Bones” I bought it for. Unfortunately, it comes on strong even when it’s not warranted, too. Nowhere is this more true than the second track, “Luka,” especially on the outro.
And that’s all Burnett, not the Sisters themselves. They’re good singers and good songwriters. Great songwriters, really – Bob Dylan even allowed them to finish a song he’d started 30 years ago but never finished, “Dirty Lie.” And take the self-defense, strong-woman murder story of “Luka,” or these lyrics from “Bad Habit,” co-written with Brandi Carlisle: “I’ve got a bad habit, one that I’ve been trying to keep… I can’t break this bad habit, ’cause this habit’s breakin’ me.” So I like this new album. I really do. The songwriting is tight and diverse and the harmonies even tighter, with that Everly Brothers comparison everyone made in 2010 especially shining through again on “Lonely Island.” But it feels like it could be just so much more, especially after seeing them live.
Three whiskey bottles out of five for 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down,” and up it four if you dig both alt-country and the 1950s yet despite those tastes have somehow never heard or tired of T. Bone Burnett.
Four out of five whiskey bottles for 2010’s debut, “Secret Sisters.” I really like the mix of their modern vocals with traditional instrumentation on that one. I hear a lot of Bakersfield here and I absolutely love it.
And albums aside, if they’re performing near you, I certainly recommend going. Buy your ticket now and have a great night. Burnett might be too focused on his other projects, but the Secret Sisters themselves are a great duo.