The signs are everywhere: "You Are Now Leaving Alt-Country". For the last several miles, you've seen fewer tumbleweeds blowing across the plains, less plaid shirts, and far fewer discarded whiskey bottles. Just like the Alternative Nation highway before it, Route A-C is fanning out like the Mississippi Delta into countless sub-territories. Now it appears from the exit you've chosen ("Exit 111, The Sweet Hereafter") that you're headed for colder climes. Bumper stickers on fellow travelers' cars read "Jesse Sykes '04" and their tires have chains on them. Oh, my girl, you are headed for Ice-Country.
Despite your apprehensions, you're not wholly unprepared for the move. You probably put it away years ago, but your Cowboy Junkies parka is still packed in the trunk, with a kick-ass matching Tarnation glove-and-boots set. As the title track of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter's second release, Oh, My Girl, begins, you are chilled but still comforted. You recognize the territory even though you haven't quite been here before. The dominant feature of Ice-Country is abundantly clear as soon as you cross the border. The burgs of "Oh, My Girl", "Winter Hunter", and "The Dreaming Dead" are teeming with dense groves of That Voice. Jesse Sykes's voice is arresting, low, and crackling. The songs are centered on the vocals like hands warming themselves around a fire.
Phil Wandscher's (ex-Whiskeytown) lead guitars and other instrumental flourishes swirl like wind-blown frost through the sparse arrangements. The Sweet Hereafter also includes Anne Marie Ruljancich on viola (even the names are cold weather names!), Bill Herzog on upright bass, and Kevin Warner on drums. Tucker Martine's production features the band in the best possible light. Everything is clear and pristine, yet designed to support and showcase Sykes first and foremost. "Oh, My Girl" has her singing something about "all the world's fuckery" before tipping her gravelly croon toward its upper range on the refrain. At least I think she said "fuckery" (and if so, that's the best use of the word I've ever heard). Sykes doesn't always enunciate clearly; the emotional impact of the songs owes more to the melody and timbre than the lyrics. It's a testament to Sykes that her voice is that evocative, but it can also distract. Even when the words are easily understood, none stand out in particular. You're hard pressed to claim "I like the song about ________." Instead, you'll say, "I like the sad pretty one." But wait, they're all pretty sad.
Most slide along at a deliberate, glacial pace, and average over five minutes in length. With the exceptions of "The Dreaming Dead" and the standout "Tell the Boys", which are infused with a kind of wan winter sunlight, the mood is fairly consistent. Some songs may stand out for a melodic snippet or featured instrument, such as the banjo and horns on "House by the Lake", or the vibes on "Grow a New Heart", but it's never quite enough to distinguish them from the rest. Though an album where each song is radically different is certainly not the point, or necessary, the constancy here can be oppressive. I suspect that this is not the case live, where all of the elements have room to echo and wash around you. Sykes is also touring as a duo on selected dates (presumably with Wandscher), which may draw more attention to each song's distinct feel, without the production blurring the edges.
Oh, My Girl is by no means a mediocre release. The songs stand on their own quite well, apart from each other. And it's a great CD for the summer, acting as a kind of aural AC. Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter are magnets for adjectives like "haunting" and "ominous", not only because Sykes's publishing name is "Spooky American", but because the feel of her songs stays with you long after the record has ended. Still, Ice-Country as represented here might be a place that is worth multiple visits, but you wouldn't want to live there.