Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Watson Twins’ music thus far in is their ability to add layers and textures to the material of others’ music. It’s telling that their best song from Fire Songs was a cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and while that album had some gems scattered among the largely anonymous arrangements, it was still hard to distinguish the artists the Watson Twins from the backing band the Watson Twins. Perhaps that was the point; after all much of Fire Songs continued in the same mountain soul twang of their collaboration with Jenny Lewis, Rabbit Fur Coat. But at this specific juncture in their career, the set of twins (Chandra and Leigh) seem to be hell bent on forging an identity that reads more than just Jenny Lewis-knock offs.
And for the most part, it works in establishing the duo as something more than an interchangeable alternative country act. Unfortunately, in an attempt to alleviate one comparison they’ve invited several others. Their latest album Talking to You, Talking to Me eliminates the twangy facets for the most part (“Tell Me Why” sounds identical to the more old school country leanings of the first She & Him album) and replaces them for retro-soul flourishes that evoke Duffy, Adele, and the Pipettes. Sometimes the association comes across as favorable: “Harpeth River” manages to ebb and groove with a slick pre-chorus and potent harmony section and despite its somewhat trite lyrical trappings, “Modern Man” makes for a daringly funky track. Elsewhere, “Brave One” is meticulously constructed with its eager drums, lilting piano number and lively vocal.
Yet a large part of this album, like their debut effort, remains completely ambiguous. “Forever Me” and “Snow Canyons” are lovely and pleasant but there’s nothing that separates them from anything from Adele’s debut. On the few songs that subtly deviate from the retro-soul formula, the vocals aren’t able to compete. “Devil In You” brings to mind some the grittiness of the Stones’ classic Exile On Main Street and “Savin’ You” is a refreshing break from the monotony of the previous tracks, the guitar lines lifted from Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” mix with its disyllabic repetition of a chorus and collide into a nice climax that the twins aren’t able to formable match vocally.
If subtlety is an aesthetic they’re aiming for, the twins should learn how to better arrange their tracks. Though the album closing number, “U N Me” proves the sisters can produce a pulse when provoked. It’s a real shame that energy is reserved for the final track and not allocated throughout the rest of the album. Over half of the album would benefit from a more lived in persona that the twins evade for the majority of their sophomore set.
The Watson Twins do succeed in providing distance between their own material and their work with Jenny Lewis but one still is left wondering why the obligation to shift styles, and why specifically this method? It’s 2010. The retro-soul boom that gave Top 40 Adele, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and the Pipettes is light years behind (in terms of pop culture dating at least) and out of vogue. If the Watson Twins are comfortable with this choice of musical atmosphere, they should take a cue from Shelby Lynne and record an entire album of covers. If they can duplicate the magic of the “Just Like Heaven” cover to fill an entire album’s worth of dirge-driven remakes of rock’s relics, they’ll have really done something unique. Until then, the sisters have turned in an album that is placid and appealing, though completely disposable.