If the 2010 self-titled debut from the Secret Sisters proved that siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers could find success with something traditional, its follow-up, Put Your Needle Down, shows that they aren't going to stay in anyone else’s shadow. It’s less formulaic and safe, more expansive and bold, while rarely losing the harmony-rich charm that seems to feel as comfortable with sugary pop as it does with dark, ominous arrangements. Put Your Needle Down doesn't sound like it’s something the godmothers of country would have made. It doesn't sound like it could have fit into another era. It stands on its own.
Where, lyrically, their first release sometimes sounded like an angry or sunken journal entry, Put Your Needle Down feels like a more piercing and lucid set of narratives. Part of it is as simple as they are growing as songwriters. Another aspect is their collaborators: Dan Wilson and Brandi Carlisle lent some held to the lyrics, plus they have super-producer T Bone Burnett in their corner, who also hooked The Sisters up with an old friend of his.
"We were in the middle of our recording session with T Bone and he said to us, 'Bob [Dylan] sent over some songs for you guys to listen to and choose one to finish,'" Laura recently told Rolling Stone. "It was the weirdest thing ever to even be considered to finish it in a way that even remotely measures up to what he is known for. So we looked at four or five demos he’d sent, and ['Dirty Lie'] really spoke to us." “Dirty Lie” was put on the shelf by Dylan in the eighties, and, on Put Your Needle Down, it feels very much like mid-to-late career Dylan, with a sludgy jazz that sounds like it could have been played in an underground club half a century ago. The Secret Sisters kind of reflect how he might have played it, but it doesn't feel like they are stealing his style, just borrowing from a master.
A heavier version of P.J. Harvey’s “The Pocket Knife” is a perfect fit for this album, keeping in line with the scornful, searing original material. The album’s opener, “Rattle My Bones”, comes out of the gate swinging, pairing outlaw riffs with hooky vocal patterns. “Black And Blue” sounds like it could have been on the last album. “Good Luck, Good Night, Goodbye” might be the most intriguing song on the record as a catchy pop-rock number that refuses to fall into any traps, both musically and in meaning.
There’s something special about the part of the country that the Secret Sisters came from. Muscle Shoals, Alabama has been a musical hotbed for a long time. In the 1960s, Muscle Shoals Sounds Studio (founded by a well-respected group of studio aces called the Swampers) and FAME Studies (founded by now-recording legend Rick Hall) blew up, leading to the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers, and many other household names cutting albums there. Maybe it’s the area’s dedication to honing roots music. Maybe it’s because, geographically, it sits in a prime location for a cross-pollination of genres. Or maybe it’s just the water. Who knows?
Either way, Put Your Needle Down shows that hometown versatility, bouncing from rhythmic, slick seventies rock to flirtations with New Wave to songs that could single-handedly make someone reconsider the sweeping generalization that pop doesn’t belong in country whatsoever. They really don't fit in anywhere anymore, and, with that in mind, they're beating the odds. But I'm beginning to realize the deck is stacked in their favor.