[24 August 2004]
Rock music history is rife with stories of artists attaining recording contracts based upon kinship rather than musical acumen, so it’s no wonder that the debut EP Love the Cup from Scotland’s Sons and Daughters is being met with attitudes ranging from cautious optimism to outright skepticism. The group has toured with their pals, the tartan heartthrobs Franz Ferdinand, and now re-releases their inaugural recording on Franz’s label to boot. In addition singer/guitarist Adele Bethel and drummer David Gow both spent a good number of years as part of the touring band for Arab Strap. With this sort of Scotch musical royalty as part of their pedigree one would expect Sons and Daughters to ape the musical stylings of their better known peers early and often, and to middling results. The truth couldn’t be any farther from this uneducated hypothesis. Love the Cup embraces the dastardly mood and bottom beat of American country stalwarts Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings while picking up the angular guitar sound and male/female call and response vocals of the new-new wave movement. Over the course of seven songs and 25 too brief minutes Sons and Daughters lay out one of the most impressive debuts of this or any year. It calls into question everything we believe about the separation of musical genres by desegregating diverse influences like Scottish folk, new wave, British punk and barrelhouse blues and finding a common ground where they can all co-exist in a new formative way.
“Fight” sets the bar high as it opens the album with a skittering drumbeat that evolves into a four on the floor blast by the time the song hits the first chorus. Guitars twang and meld seamlessly with the expert mandolin work of Ailidh Lennon. Bethel and co-vocalist Scott Paterson saunter through an old time tale aptly telling the story of, what else, a rousing fight. It’s refreshing to hear a female take the forefront on a classic style country bar song with the male vocal of Paterson playing second fiddle to the assured voice of Bethel. The song is one that combines the stirring emotive nature of Arab Strap and amps it up in the format of a dark country anthem.
The ghost of Fleetwood Mac haunts second track “Broken Bones”. Bethel sings over a standard band arrangement highlighted by some riffing guitar work reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham’s work on Rumors. The vocals only add to the overall tone of the track as Bethel does a worthy job of illustrating what it would sound like if Patti Smith were to cover Fleetwood Mac’s “Chains”. While the track is a bit more atmospheric than “Fight” it is a worthy segue to the homage “Johnny Cash”.
Fan worship can go either way and “Johnny Cash” does it the right way. Paterson takes lead vocals and sounds like he’s just taken the stage at the Folsom Prison. The guitars hang low and ominous in the background and the true explosion comes during the chorus when a screeching Bethel enters the song on vocals and adds a juking one-note keyboard solo allowing the song to reach a new and transcendent level. Although the song doesn’t appear to be about Cash in a lyrical sense it is a fitting tribute to the musical legacy of the man in black.
Both “Blood” and “Start to End” borrow musically from the legacy of PJ Harvey. The melodies are much more blues based than the previous three tracks and Bethel’s vocals capture the dichotomy of Harvey’s as she quickly switches between breathy and sultry whispers (“Start to End”) and screeching sing song quicksilver rants (“Blood”). Despite their obvious musical debt to their UK neighbor both tracks stand on their own as stellar songs. The acoustic based “Start to End” is the stronger of the two as it is less repetitive than “Blood” and finishes strong with a transition to crunchy electric guitar and some ethereal mandolin work that waxes poetic on R.E.M.‘s great mandolin album Automatic for the People.
The longest track on the EP “La Lune” is in some ways the finest. It does the best job of merging the obvious country and blues influences on Sons and Daughters and creates a new and winning formula. Bethel handles lead vocal work as the bass and drums thump in the background accompanied by a gentle mandolin riff. Paterson joins the vocal fray in the choruses for a call and response series of Motown-esque “la la las” and “uh uh uhs” before the whole house explodes in a brilliantly choreographed wall of guitar feedback.
Closing the set is the ironically titled “Awkward Duet” which features Paterson and Bethel reigning in the menace and unleashing a more gentle and refined take on country music. Finger picked guitar, a brushed drum beat and dulcet bass complete the mélange and this mini-album closes in a genuine and sublime fashion.
Sometimes having friends in high places can be a hindrance. Playing second fiddle to the coolest kid in school isn’t good for anyone’s ego and it often it lends itself to a letdown when you finally step out on your own. In the case of Scotland’s Sons and Daughters nothing could be further from the truth. This is a group that has clearly learned their lessons from both Arab Strap and Franz Ferdinand, but has wisely chosen not to mimic or rely on the success of their peers. Instead they have taken their own first step towards greatness crafting seven songs that beat close to the hearts of multiple genres in a real and novel manner. Their peers may have gotten to the dance first, but it would come as no surprise if Sons and Daughters were still dancing long after the last song is played.