The feel-good story of the folk duo the Weepies makes you want to like their feel-good songs. In 2001, Steve Tannen and Deb Talan, both solo performers who admired each other’s music, met at Tannen’s show at Cambridge’s Club Passim. They hit it off musically and then romantically, forming the duo and releasing an album in 2003, getting married in 2007, having three children in following years. For folk artists, they have sold a considerable number of records, due in part to their commercial exposure — they’ve had more than one hundred song placements on television, in ads, in films. But it’s never easy being a small musical act, and it got much harder in late 2013 when Talan was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Good news: she’s in remission. Also good news: the medical struggles, the chemo treatments, the difficulty of going through this with three young children didn’t stop Talan and Tannen from writing songs and then wanting to record them as its own kind of therapy.
The Weepies have been known for songs whose subjects contain an element of sadness but whose melodic hooks and pleasing harmonies belie that sadness, as in their breakthrough hit “World Spins Madly On”. Occasionally, their songs will be straightforwardly happy, as with the first single (“I Was Made for Sunny Days”) on Be My Thrill (2010), where Talan sings “I was made for sunny days / I made do with grey / But I didn’t stay / I was made for sunny days / And I was made for you.” Sirens is their first album in five years, and despite the personal difficulties, the album still has a peppy vibe and its share of optimistic songs, such as “Never Let You Down” and “Early Morning Riser”. But in several of the songs a darker undertone lurks. The title track references two kinds of sirens, the ones on top of ambulances that come and get you in an emergency, as well as the ones that grace the cover art of the album: Homer’s mermaids from the Odyssey who lure sailors to their doom with beautiful voices. “I hear their voices, sirens singing in the street / I thought they might be calling out for you, for me,” Talan sings in her beguiling voice. One of the earliest songs written for this album, before the cancer diagnosis, is “No Trouble”, where Tannen sings the lines “I don’t need no trouble, but sometimes trouble needs me”, which became unfortunately prophetic.
It’s no surprise that songs by the Weepies fit well as short, background music for films and ads, as their style veers toward carefully crafted folk-pop. The folk music tradition has numerous lines, including the line descending from long ballad songs that have been re-arranged and added to over centuries, as well as the more recent line exemplified by first-person lyrics that singer-songwriters have used to explore deeply their understandings of the world. The Weepies inhabit and have added to a third folk line, one for which the songwriter creates the kind of original songs that a group of friends might sing together in someone’s living room. The lyrics are comfortable, not surprising. Rhymes are expected; metaphors are easily understandable; a song’s themes are clear. Song structure is verse and chorus.
My favorite songs on the album are the darker ones. “Does Not Bear Repeating” is aggressive in its sound and lyric, and gets most interesting at the moment where Talan sings “Oh whoa whoa whoa” and you can’t tell if she means “woe woe woe”. “Sirens” shows a new songwriting level, something ambitious in its complex weaving of the Homeric story and the cancer diagnosis into a personal song, but one that can refer likewise to anyone whose health or relationships are in crisis. But Sirens has numerous light-hearted songs that will please long-time fans. “Brand New Pair of Wings” and “My Little Love” mine the vein of folk-pop that the Weepies do so well. “Sunflower” is quintessential, both in its sound (acoustic guitar strum-pick, light drumming, tight harmonies), and in its message: “When the sky is gray, and hope just hides away / I’ll be your sunflower / I’ll shine for you / I’ll do anything for you.” And they do — they sing music that makes us happy.