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The Chapin Sisters


(Lake Bottom; US: 14 Sep 2010; UK: 14 Sep 2010)

Subtle pleasures

Abigail and Lily Chapin named their new record Two for a couple of very good reasons: it’s their second album, plus the group’s membership has been reduced from three siblings to just two. This type of cheeky sensibility pervades almost every track on the duo’s latest disc. Think of those sand castles children create with plastic buckets and shovels with popsicle stick flagpoles and doors made out of sea shells right near the water’s edge. They know the ocean will soon reclaim the structures, but that’s part of thrill. The Chapin Sisters’ album is the aural equivalent to those beach palaces. The two create intricate confections out of simple harmonies and instrumentation, but never take anything too seriously. The emotional resonance is that of a sigh, even when a song is sad.

The way in which the two sisters’ voices mix together complements the ephemeral nature of the music. They sound more like a distaff Lennon/McCartney than a traditional sibling act. Their vocals chafe more than blend and create a mild dissonance. On unhappy songs, such as “Boo Hoo” and “I Can Feel”, one feels a distance between the singers and the singers’ gloominess. It’s not that one doesn’t believe the narrator of “Boo Hoo” is actually crying, but more that one believes the sisters have found solace in the tears. The song begins with one sister singing solo, so that when she’s joined by the other during the chorus, one finds relief in the sharing of personal expression. Not only does misery love company, shared melancholy has its own rewards. Ahhhhh.

Or as they put it in “I Can Feel”, “It’s raining out here / We’re gonna get wet.” While people generally wear raincoats and employ umbrellas to avoid precipitation, sometimes it just feels good to get soaked. The lilting voices they use to sing about the weather make you believe they enjoy it, despite the fact that the song is about unrequited love. It feels good to love someone sometimes, even if you are not loved back.

Much of this effect is created by the open and uncluttered production, which not only allows the sisters’ voices to be clearly heard, but also allows the interplay of instruments to come through. Lily plays guitar, banjo, keyboards, and percussion, while Abigail plays guitar, keyboards, flute, and percussion; they are also joined by others on the same instruments and more, including Jesse Le on drums and Dan Horne on bass, on most tracks. There is an airiness to the album, which sounds whispery even at loud volumes. This endows the lighter songs with a sense of playfulness, as if the musicians were engaged in acts of aural graffiti by adding strange rhythms and beats to the simpler melodies. So when the sisters chant on “Digging a Hole”, “I’ll find a husband with a shovel / I will be his wife / I’m digging a hole / I’ll be digging for the rest of my life,” the African-style accompaniments just adds to the surrealistic silliness. The lyrics’ metaphor makes sense by not making sense, asking if marriage is a hole that we dig ourselves into. No need to answer that—the chugging of the instrumental accompaniment makes it clear that it’s both yes and no.

The other striking feature of this record is just how relaxed both sisters sound. The songs move at a tranquil pace without ever sounding slow. The Chapin Sisters have discovered that one doesn’t have to rush or shout or have something important to say to create resonant art. Sometimes a sigh is more significant than an intense emotion, just as sometimes Bach is preferable to Beethoven and a meringue better than a torte. Enjoy the album for what it is and what it is not.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

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