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The Sweetback Sisters

Looking For a Fight

(Signature Sounds; US: 11 May 2011)

Safe as Milk

The retro-country sextet The Sweetheart Sisters pretend that they are cruisin’ for a bruisin’, but it’s only a pose. These Brooklyn-based musicians concede that they are hipsters. The sisters — none of whom are related and only two of whom are even female — simply play pretend. That’s okay. Authenticity is overrated. The question is this: Why would one play pretend when the original recordings by artists they cover (and are influenced by), such as Patsy Cline and Hazel Dickens, are easily available.


The Sisters recorded the album with old-dated equipment (an old RCA 44 ribbon microphone) on analog tape in an old-fashioned studio with the two female vocalist sharing the same mic—just like musicians used to back in the day. Does it work? Well, if you are expecting the great music of the past, the album is a dismal failure. There’s a big difference between classic genius and talented musicianship. That’s clearly in evidence here.


But talented musicianship is nothing to scoff at. The players are more than competent. Jesse Milne’s guitar and fiddle work is especially noteworthy; each song by itself offers fine voices and atmospheric accompaniment. The disc is the musical equivalent of a coffee table book with nice illustrations and a clever topic. The only problem is that there is nothing threatening here — not in the covered material or in the ones written by the band. And those songs are meant to have an edge. Do Brooklynites really not understand the meaning of “snarky”?


The pejorative term for this album would be coffee shop or NPR-friendly music, two places I am sure this disc gets played a lot. That’s not a bad thing in itself. Stylized revolt in a pretty package is as old as the recording industry itself. There’s just something annoying about the oatmeal grey quality of the enterprise. Songs like Dwight Yoakam’s “It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down From This Barstool” demand more respect. It needs swagger, not just rhythm; an ache in the voice, not gentle yearnings. The inflections here make the lyrics safe as milk when they are actually snake-bit with whiskey.


Their original (written by singer Emily Miller) “Run Home and Cry” is a more metaphorically suggestive description of the disc’s contents. Even if the narrator of that song is telling her unfaithful lover to hit the road, she doesn’t seem especially vindictive about it. It’s almost as if she’s used to have lovers step out on her and lets him go without malice. One senses she will run home and cry after he’s gone.


Fiddler Milnes’ “Two Many Experts” works best—the upbeat picking fits the tale of a bartender who makes his patrons duke it out outside instead of argue universal issues and sports on the premises. Sure, it’s silly, but hokum has its place. The same is true for the cover of The Sons of the Pioneers’ “Cowboy Ham and Eggs”. Because it is just about what it says and performed with a sense of serious ridiculousness, it works.


So ignore the title. The Sweetback Sisters ain’t looking to throw punches, despite the boxing glove on the disc’s cover. Think “sweetback” as in nostalgia. If you yearn for the mythic past that never was as rosy as you think it might have been, this is for you.

Rating:

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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