The website for the Chapin Sisters is adorned with a line drawing of three lovely girls, a series of fanciful snow-capped mountains in the background, and flowers in the foreground. It’s lovely, in a bucolic way, until you notice a tear slipping down one girl’s cheek, a spider spinning ominously in the corner. It’s just a hint of darkness in a sunny world, and a spot-on metaphor for these sisters’ serenely murderous brand of folk.
The Chapin girls are sisters (and half-sisters) sharing the same mother and one of two famous dads. Two of the girls send their father’s day cards to Tom Chapin, the third to film director Wes Craven. They grew up together and apart, spending summers and holidays in what sound like idyllic rural gatherings, with lots of singing in three-part harmonies. The girls hooked up again after college, laying a mess of pop and gangsta rap covers to tape as a prank (the whole thing instigated by a brother—this is nothing if not a family story), and deciding mid-session that maybe they were too good to a be joke. Their cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” got play on some West Coast radio stations, and they regrouped with a bit more purpose. Another single, “Let Me Go” (the first song on this full-length) got even more attention, and the Chapin Sisters took off. They landed on Plain Recordings, the label that launched Cat Power’s career. Like Ms. Marshall, they haunt the interstices of folk, pop, and blues, and play seductive games with the knife-edge of heartache. Their soft harmonies and dark sidelong lyrics fit perfectly into a new folk aesthetic that is more twisted than freaky.
Consider, for example, the lovely “Let Me Go”, which opens in a splatter of guitar notes, then adds the heady, slow syrup of three female voices in harmony…“My baby hates me…” sings one sister, taking the dusky lead, while her siblings surge in wordless sweetness behind her. “Let me go”, she continues, “I’m so tired of being untrue / Gonna let you find someone that’ll do more than I do”. The “do” becomes a baroque vocal flourish, the simple stem of the song flowering into curlicues and arabesques at its peripheries. The song is interesting, not just for its interplay of luminous harmony and dark subject matter, but because it flips the expected. It’s the narrator, a woman, who has done wrong and she wants to be punished for it, unlike so many blues songs where a female mourns the transgressions of another. For women, who are, I think, prone as a gender to self-examination and self-hatred, it’s a moment of naked revelation…the “it’s my fault” that’s always on our lips given form and expression and melody.
You hear all three sisters taking the lead during the first three songs, I believe. (I could be wrong, because there are no individual credits, but the voices seem subtly different.) The singer on “Let Me Go” has a low-ish blues-y tone. The one on “Hey” is higher, breathier, and more pop of voice as she sings over a lattice of arrepegiated chords. And with “Kill Me Now”, the vocal tone is smoother, more supple and sweeter, surely a third sister. The kick is that though their voices are slightly different, they share enough in tone to make the harmonies haunting, a unity of three singers with the same musical, as well as physical, DNA.
You could easily drift by on the Chapins’ music, whiling away a pleasant afternoon in a doze while their folk pickings and elaborate vocal arrangements provide a soothing background. You’d have to switch off your lyrical interpreter to do this, however, since these sweet-voiced songs almost all contain a kernel of violence. “Kill Me Now” wafts along on a cloud of “aahs” and “laas”, supported only by a tangle of acoustic guitars, the ultimate in dreamy folk pop. Yet when the lyrics come, they’re all about the wreck of love and the fascination of deep hurts. “Don’t want to live / Sad lonely / So go get a rock and just stone me”, begs the singer in one verse. She asks for a knife cut in another. Then, on “Drop Me”, another sister asks to be dropped out of an airplane. The song has a weird sadistic fascination, because very seldom do we see such pretty girls so abject in front of lovers. (Although later, we get to hear them break someone else‘s heart in “I Don’t Love You.”)
All the songs have a melancholy edge. Even “Shady River”, maybe the most breezy and upbeat, is about missing the country, not being in the country, its unearthly “woo-ooo-ooohs” wrapped around melancholy musings about stars you can’t see and city streets you can’t escape.
There’s a toughness about these songs that rings very true to the blues tradition, even if the words and stories have a modern feel to them. These are girls who don’t love you, they hate your girlfriend, they don’t even like the moon, but they can be hurt, and badly, too. Just don’t expect them to sit around moping about it. More likely they’ll write a song and set their rage into swooning harmonies and achingly pretty folk melodies. Then you’ll be sorry.