Wednesday, April 8, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1357: The Secret Sisters

My apologies for my reduced output of late, but it’s been one hell of a week. I take some comfort that the long weekend is just around the corner. I’m not feeling particularly witty as a result but you’re in luck; I wrote the “What’s up with the cover?” part of the entry before everything blew up. It was like a little humour Easter Egg waiting for me to find it tonight, just when I needed it.

Disc 1357 is…. Saturn Return
Artist: The Secret Sisters

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover? The Secret Sisters do everything together. In fact, this is one single black dress. It is super inconvenient, but that’s how they roll.

Also, worth noting “Saturn Return” is not something we should be wishing on the earth. Saturn had six kids with his sister and then tried to eat them all which was super uncool on a number of levels.

And even if you’re just talking about the planet, Saturn returning to earth would also be a terrible state of affairs.

Anyway, the sisters look happy in the photo, despite the uncomfortable dress they’re sharing and the whole “Saturn eats his babies” thing.

How I Came To Know It: I was already a fan of the Secret Sisters, so when I saw they had released a new album, I bought it without a second thought. This was back when you could just walk into a record store and do such things. Remember that? Those were the days.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Secret Sisters albums. Of the four, I put “Saturn Return” in at #4.

Ratings: 3 stars

One of my favourite things about the Secret Sisters is their timeless sound. Their stripped-down production and sublime tight two-part harmonies are a huge part of their appeal. “Saturn Return” retains the two-part harmonies, but the stripped-down production is gone in favour of a lusher sound.

Before I rail too hard against the production on this record, it is worth noting that the producers (Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth twins) are among my favourite artists in their own right. In fact, Carlile and the Hanseroths produced the previous record (2017’s “You Don’t Own Me Anymore”) and that’s my favourite Secret Sisters record.

That said, they’ve definitely upped the pop elements and lowered the folk on their second collaboration. They still bring great production values to “Saturn Return”. It isn’t muddy or uncertain, and everything is nice and even in the mix, but I wanted a few fewer bells and whistles. On a general note, I find that often as artists become more established their production gets more complicated. My favourite theory for this is that they have more studio money to play with.

Fortunately, the Rogers sisters (their actual names are not the secret, fyi) have the same gifted vocals as ever, the same effortless range and the same sweet tones. They’re like a throwback to forties crooners, only singing contemporary folk. There are reasons I buy all their albums, and this is one of the main ones.

They are also gifted songwriters, although on Saturn Return I found the quality uneven. Worse is the album doesn’t lead with the strongest tracks. The opener, “Silver” is about how grey hair comes with old age, but so does wisdom. A relatively safe folksong topic, but the song’s chorus of:

“Look upon your mother and the silver in her hair
Consider it a crown the holiest may wear.”

Felt like a lot of forced rhyme and awkward structure in service of a metaphor with an insufficient payoff.

Hand Over My Heart” is also indicative of excess cleverness. It is designed to use the title of the song as a phrase with an evolving meaning through the song. It accomplishes this, but I was left wondering if the effort was worth it. Also, the production here (with its synthy background) was too much for me. Not even well-placed hand claps could save the experience, even though hand claps, as everyone knows, make all songs better.

Four songs into my first listen I was questioning whether the record was shelf-worthy at all. A crisis was in the making.

Fortunately, everything was forgiven on Track Five. “Fair” is a stripped-down, tragic tale of how life just isn’t fair sometimes. The vocals are angelic, and a powerful counterpoint to the tale of a broken home. It explores the ugly truth that some people just get dealt better cards than others, as the narrator recalls a neighbour who drew a bad hand.

The other stand-out is equally depressing. “Nowhere, Baby” is a sad song about exactly that. The narrator works hard, endures hardships, and makes sacrifices, all to find themselves wondering why they’re no further ahead. It’s a tough listen, but tragic tales seem to bring the best out of the Secret Sisters on this record, and “Nowhere, Baby” is as good as the record gets.

“Saturn Return” is a record that in places is overwrought, but when it hits it delivers a gut-punch of emotional honesty that you forgive its earlier foibles. It isn’t where I’d start diving into their collection, but I wouldn’t avoid it either.

Best tracks: Fair, Tin Can Angel, Nowhere Baby, Water Witch

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