The Sweetback Sisters’ Kick-Ass Oldschool C&W
How do you describe a country record? If it’s good, it’s usually got a backbeat, and twangy vocals, and tasty instrumentation. Check out that sweet pedal steel! Oooh, here’s a funny song about getting drunk…and a sad one about getting dumped. Then there’s the dark side of country. As Stephen King will tell you, rural areas are scary, and some country music is terrifying. The Sweetback Sisters’ album Looking for a Fight isn’t one of those albums: it’s a fun one, with the exception of a couple of real haunters. What makes it different from the rest?
For one, this band knows their roots. The songs start out sounding about 1953 and go about as far as ten years later, beginning around the time country bands started using electric guitars and taking it up to the Bakersfield era, which employed electric bass and drums along with the Telecasters. They romp through vintage honkytonk, western swing and Tex-Mex with equal expertise. They get their signature sound from the badass vocals of Emily Miller and Zara Bode, who blend voices like the long lost twin granddaughters of Rose Maddox. The obvious comparison, New York-wise, is Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. with their period-perfect instrumentation and arrangements, but the Sweetback Sisters aren’t satirical, even if they sometimes get in your face. And yet they’re not totally retro either: the bad-girl personas aren’t just a cliche out of the rockabilly fakebook. The songs here are some of the most enjoyable ones to come out of this town in a long time.
As much fun as this band is, the two best songs here are slow, dark 6/8 ballads. Home, with its hushed vocals and Ross Bellenoit’s echoey, opiated tremolo guitar, paints a shadowy picture of clinical depression: “The voids start to fill…a wilted spread on the bed, and the thoughts fill your head, a little corpse on a hook.” Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here There quietly but ferociously takes down a guy who’s cruel enough to rip a girl’s confidence to shreds and then turns on her for being insecure. The only other sad song here is The Heart of My Mind, a poignant, heartbroken waltz.
The rest of the album is irrepressibly upbeat. The opening track, Love Me Honey, Do is a bouncy Tex-Mex tune that goes up, and up, and up some more. A Bill Monroe style western swing song, Texas Bluebonnets takes a wistful theme and builds it to a chorus that just won’t quit. The first of the honkytonk numbers, It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down from This Barstool is one of those songs that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing that this band did it instead of somebody else. The band blends a little vintage 60s soul into the mix on the title track, then goes for the jugular on Run Home and Cry, about a whiny guy who has the nerve to cheat (memo to the Sisters: whiny guys always cheat, because they’re self-centered).
The only straight-up love song here, The Mystery of You sets dreamy pedal steel over a skipping, staccato groove; then they go back to the honkytonk with a mid-50s style kissoff song, Thank You, lit up by Jesse Milnes’ fiddle, and twinkling piano way back in the mix. Rattled reaches for a coy but sultry Rosie Flores-style guitar-fueled rockabilly vibe, while Too Many Experts, a lickety-split bluegrass tune, is just plain hilarious, making fun of belligerent macho yahoos with its torrents of lyrics. “If a policeman should appear, ‘I only served them beer, yeah, one or two apiece I’m pretty sure,'” grins the bartender as he watches the melee unfold. The album winds up with a brief, early 50s style cowboy harmony number featuring drummer Stefan Amidon’s deadpan bass vocals. The band is currently on tour with Eilen Jewell, with several appearances at South by Southwest and then a Brooklyn show at the Jalopy on April 8.