Music

The Secret Sisters: Put Your Needle Down

The Secrets Sisters' sophomore album is less formulaic and safe than their debut. And the reward trumps the risk.


The Secret Sisters

Put Your Needle Down

Label: Republic
US Release Date: 2014-04-15
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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.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

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17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

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Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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