Dawn Landes swears that the title of her new album, Sweet Heart Rodeo, has nothing to do with the Byrds’ 1968 album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo. It references, instead, her great-grandmother’s beau, who ran off to join the rodeo during the Great Depression. But that is hardly the only thing that distinguishes Landes’ solid new album from that classic alt-country record. There is little of the laid-back, SoCal haze in this record. Landes is a fiery performer, and most of these songs burst out with energy instead of lilting out with country sway.
The first four tracks here are as good a set of songs as we’ve seen from Landes, and they also show the variety to come in Sweet Heart Rodeo. The clamoring grit of “Young Girl” reveals a seething performance by Landes, singing through her teeth about the absurdity of the sniping girls and pawing boys that surround the title girl. “Romeo” sounds at first like a lullaby, like Landes is singing at the foot of a lover’s bed. But the deeper you get into it, the more it seems likely that, while she’s singing, she’s tapping a knife blade on the windowpane. Not to use it, but just to let him know who’s in charge.
“Money in the Bank” does pull back from that intensity some. But this is just a quieter storm, an opportunity for the shadowy charm of Landes’ voice to draw us in after the challenge of the first two tracks. And after she wins you over, she hits you with the raucous mess of “Love”. The spare drum-and-bass opening calls to mind, surprisingly, Spoon. But from there, she moves into something murkier, full of atmospherics and far-off, clustered-up vocals. In an album of heartbreak, redemption, missed connections and miscommunications, it’s fitting — and darkly funny — that a song called “Love” unwinds into chaos.
And while the album rests on that rodeo imagery — effectively showing the often graceless way we can hang on to a love that we should let go of, that will hurt or leave us because it should — it never settles into a sound. “Sweetheart on the Rodeo” has a dusty country thump, but “Clown” sounds more like bedroom electro-pop. The cutting “Wandering Eye” piles layers on an organ waltz, while “Dance Area” stays spare and lets the haunting vocals do the work.
Despite her feisty nature, Landes is just as capable of slowing down and winning you over with a bittersweet hush. “Brighton” is a beautiful love song to the town, bringing the album to a halt in the best way possible. Here she steps out of the anger and the intensity, steps out of the past and lives in the moment, a moment of appreciation and wonder. And that guilelessness shows the heartfelt emotion behind everything else going on in Sweet Heart Rodeo.
Dawn Landes sounds at home in every song here, in every variation and genre she tries her hand at. That control extends to the record as a whole, which clocks in at just over a half an hour. She makes us hold tight for the entire time, shaking and bucking the whole way, but never gives us a chance to let go. For such a short set, Sweet Heart Rodeo catches the listener off guard an awful lot. So you wonder what other surprises it might have yielded if Landes had kept pushing that much further. It’s not a complaint, really, just that feeling you get when you’re charmed by something. You want more of it.