[11 June 2008]
The Stairwell Sisters have come quite far since founding members Lisa Berman and Sue Sandlin began practicing vocal harmonies in a stairwell at work. Their third release, Get Off Your Money, showcases the all-female string band’s authentic old-time sound with the band’s present-day interpretations and original compositions. The five member band arranges traditional fiddle tunes and old-time standbys by running music through the “Sister Mill”. In this way, songs take on new energies and identities. Thus, songs depicting timeless themes such as working class struggles, love, and loss regain their relevancy.
Album producer Lloyd Maines describes his discovery of The Stairwell Sisters as happening “upon this tribe of women musicians, playing old-time string music, with the power and excitement of a rock band.” Maines’ words can also aptly describe one’s initial hearing of the Sisters’ Get Off Your Money. These women attach a rock-and-roll energy to an acoustic mountain sound, summoning images of a misty mountain festival performance complete with wooden clogging board. Bandanas and whiskey are at home with Chuck Taylors and wine coolers.
The album begins with a high-stepping fiddle tune, “Kentucky Winder”, a furiously-fiddled song from Kentucky’s John Salyer. The strings form several layers of picking, strumming, and bowing while Evie Ladin steps the rhythm. The instrumental tune is replete with shouts and calls, setting up a hootenanny atmosphere. The next song, “Hangman Tree”, is decidedly less celebratory in demeanor, and its comparatively sullen mood echoes with Ladin’s clawhammer banjo picking, Stephanie Prausnitz’s slow, weeping fiddle, and Sandlin’s sultry harmonica. Berman’s arrangement of the sad tale involves her Southern-accented, molasses-thick lead vocals repeating, “Oh hangman, hangman / slacken up your line”. The album continues in this way, segueing party tunes into vivid ballads.
The original selections blend right in with the old-timey numbers. That is, it may be hard to determine which songs are old and traditional and which are new compositions. “Swing Low” is, obviously, an interpretation of the spiritual that became “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Alternately, “Fitch Mountain Waltz”, with its multi-layered harmonies and waltz-heavy strumming, could just as well have been written during the 1890s in the Shenandoah Valley. Rather, the song was written by guitarist/bassist Martha Hawthorne about a hike in Northern California with Hawthorne’s late mother. Interestingly, this concluding track is the only piece on the album that involves all five ladies singing harmonies at once.
The seamless instrumentation along with each band member’s musicianship help this album stand out from others of its genre. The Sisters have created their own little old-time wall of sound in some tracks. At other times, the feeling is stripped-down, with the bare minimum of accompaniment. Original tune “Black Eyes” by Berman involves a lonely fiddle, quiet banjo, and Ladin’s foot-shuffling and high stepping. Ladin’s feet take the spotlight in the beginning of “Stay All Night”. In this selection Ladin dons tap shoes and works through several rhythms on her own before becoming the song’s rhythm basis. The dual fiddles enter to make a complex clogging tune, and they move the song’s scale back and forth from grand to small.
When the Sisters aren’t encouraging rabble-rousing in such songs as the title track, “Sleep When You’re Dead”, and “Kentucky Winder”, they spin stories of folklore. From “Silly Liza Jane” to “David and Goliath”, the songs allude to characters portrayed in stories that have lasted for centuries. Song fodder covers a range of topics from trains (“Cannonball”) to convincing a lover to stay the night (“Stay All Night”). Overall, though, the subject matter comes down to ubiquitous themes that old-time music communicates. These are the songs about struggle and survival. These are the stories that coalmen from the 1800s can relate to as well as someone driving home in rush hour.