When discussing and experiencing the music of sister act The Pierces, first impressions may be hard to ignore. Catherine and Alison, presently of New York though native Alabamans (The Pierces’ image draws equally from parts of personas related to their past and present residences—the pair appearing both as worldly bohemians and honeyed country girls), possess spellbinding looks and a knack for creating similarly mesmeric harmonies, allowing easily for the duo to be cast in the image of sirens ready to cause the ruin of many a poor independent music loving boy.
Add the occasional instance of sensual and/or sinister lyric sensibility to the strength of the pair’s external appearance and the group’s initial allure becomes all the harder to forget. On The Pierces’ third LP, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge , such poetic playfulness manifests itself in several different ways. On one of the album’s singles, the attention-grabbing “Boring”, the sisters offer, in callous verses and cooing choruses, an inventory of activities they find tedious including various sexual arrangements and hard drugs. Provocative? Yes. Parody? Most likely. The song’s audacious tone hooks listeners, thereby drawing greater concentration to the point of just how vapid the decadent, celebrity-oriented focus our society often ascribes to can be. Additionally, the lyrics of early track “Lights On” reinforce The Pierces’ come-hither power as the song beckons a lover to “Make love with the lights on, baby / Tell me what you see / Clear the bed to lie on darling / Make a mess of me / Here’s my dress to try on, baby / Let me be your man / I will call you pretty darling, tell me what I am.” Covering the inclusion of the word revenge in the album’s title are cuts like “Secret” and “Ruin” which allow The Pierces to wink wickedly at the listener and add another dimension to their charisma.
Yet, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge is an album that is not all—not even nearly all—sizzle and sex appeal. There are some wonderfully rich musical forces at play here and a cursory acceptance of the record as simply some kind of attempt at creating enthralling pop hypnosis belies the overarching depth of the material. Yes, there is a definite charm and attractiveness to The Pierces but it is revealed more through musical substance than outward magnetism.
As songwriters and performers, the Pierce sisters have an undeniably keen grasp of the melodic; the pair bend and shape sequences of notes to fit each song’s ultimate purpose—some being allowed to soar, others tunneling their way into listeners’ brains, so catchy they might never leave. While tracks early in the album’s sequence such as “Boring”, “Lights On”, and “Secret” (the latter having one of those inescapable, burrowing tunes) might garner the most immediate attention, several of the album’s biggest gems, possessing both melody and momentum, populate the record’s final two-thirds. The best of these cuts include “Ruin”, “Three Wishes”, and “The Power Of…”. Each track is compelling vocally and establishes the duo’s ability to captivate in subtler ways.
With the direction of producer Roger Greenawalt (Nils Lofgren, Radish, Ben Kweller), The Pierces maintain splendid and eclectic artistic values which guide each song’s arrangement and never allow the pair’s work to be presented in a pedestrian fashion. Rich instrumentation is one of the hallmarks of Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge . The devilish whirl of “Secret” draws its energy from accordion and calliope; “Turn On Billie” (which suggests the music of Ms. Holliday as a cure-all for romantic woe) owes its appropriately jazzy feel to ukulele strums, vibraphone runs and bolstering bassoons; and the Eastern music vibe of “Lies” is furthered through the sitar and autoharp which help to accompany the Pierces’ swirling vocals. The examples go on and on; instruments as conventional as violin, saxophone, and French horn combine with slide whistles and Hawaiian lap steel to augment more traditional guitar-bass-drum frameworks.
The strength of The Pierces’ material and their treatment of it also allows the album to accommodate not only a variety of sounds, but styles as well without any progression or transition coming off as disparate. While the group is best known for its sharing in the ideals of roots-and-folk-based music, they display a certain level of comfort in the practices of radio-friendly pop and quirkier, more jazz-centered cuts.
At the album’s best moments, when the sass and spunk of the Pierce sisters combines with their musical prowess, the result is quite an intoxicating brew. Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge is a record that impressively showcases the depth and range of its makers and should bring even brighter spotlight to the formidable talents of The Pierces.