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A Richly Retro New Album From Honkytonk Harmony Stars the Sweetback Sisters

With their twangy harmonies, purist oldschool C&W instrumentation, vivid storytelling and omnipresent sense of humor, the Sweetback Sisters sounds like they just stepped offstage at the Grand Old Opry sometime in the mid-50s – or 60s on occasion. Singers Emily Miller and Zara Bode can be totally badass one moment and shatteringly poignant the next. Their previous album Looking For a Fight was a mix of deliciously retro honkytonk and western swing tunes, with a couple of harrowingly lyrical ballads. Their new one King of Killing Time – streaming at Bandcamp – looks back a little further to around 1953, when proto-rock, blues, jazz and pop were all getting cross-pollinated more radically than anytime before the internet was something more than a dialup connection for the Pentagon. The Sweetback Sisters don’t play quite a much live as they used to, so their album release show this Saturday night, August 19 at 8:30 PM at the Jalopy is likely to sell out. Cover is $20; get to Red Hook early if you can.

With its brisk shuffle rhythm and trainwhisttle guitar accents, Gotta Get A-Goin could be an early 50s Davis Sisters hit, right down to the vintage vernacular and Ben Sanders’ jaunty fiddle solo. The swinging I Got Lucky With You is just plain sweet: it’s got 50s-style PG-rated innuendo, and it’s also the rare love song that doesn’t suck:

Fortune smiles on very few in this world…
So I have to muddle through
The other things that I do
Since I got lucky with you

Trouble, by the band’s excellent former guitarist Jesse Milnes, is a sly, lowdown proto-rockabilly boogie with unexpectedly fiery cajun tinges, a tantalizingly brief duel between guitarists Ross Bellenoit and Ryan Hommel, and a trick ending. The album’s sad, swaying, aphoristic title track, a concert favorite, feels like an Ernest Tubb radio hit spiced up with a little Chuck Berry guitar. On one hand, the story of the redneck landlord/tenant confrontation in I’m Gonna Cry is just plain funny, but coming from a band more or less based in Brooklyn, that scenario takes on a more soberingly sinister level of meaning.

It’s All Your Fault is a showcase for the band, with solos all around from fiddle, to bass, to guitar, and finally a long, triumphant one from Brain Cloud clarinetist Dennis Lichtman. The wistful waltz One Day at a Time offers an intriguing new way of responding if your true love should unexpectedly pop the question. Keening pedal steel and gentle fiddle fuels the catchy, midtempo That’s All it Took; a duet that would be infinitely improved if just the band’s two frontwomen were singing it.

The cover of Marty Robbins’ Don’t Worry is the most surreal and musically amusing song on the album, an anachronistic mashup of hard honkytonk, early swamp rock and fuzztone 60s psychedelia. The album winds up with a lush, harmony-infused cover of George Jones’ classic honkytonk waltz If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will). It’s impossible to think of a better hard country record than this released this year.

The Sweetback Sisters Make a Long-Awaited Return to Their Favorite Brooklyn Honkytonk

The Sweetback Sisters don’t play as many New York shows as they used to, which means that the badass twin-female-fronted oldschool honkytonk and Americana band should draw an especially good crowd to their June 17, 9 PM show at the Jalopy. Cover is $15; get there early. It’s the Jalopy, after all, so the pre-show hangout comes without all the hassles and high prices you get at so many other venues.

The last time this blog caught the band, it was almost a couple of years ago – damn, how time flies – out back of City Winery. Co-bandleader/singer/multi-instrumentalist Zara Bode had relocated to San Francisco, away from her counterpart, fiddler/guitarist Emily Miller, so this was a heartwarming reunion of sorts. Bode took the smoky low harmony against Miller’s soaring high one on a spirited, syncopated western swing number to open the show. Then they took that style, and the energy, to redline with the scampering, catchy Texas Bluebonnets, packed with all sorts of neat tradeoffs between fiddle and electric guitar. Looking back, it’s impossible to remember exactly who the personnel onstage were, other than the frontwomen; previous lineups have featured bassist Peter Bitenc, drummer Stefan Amidon, fiddler Jesse Milnes and ferocious lead guitarist Ryan Hommel.

Bode again took centerstage on a defiantly jazz-tinged strut through It’s All Your Fault, with a simmering rockabilly solo from the lead player. Miller took over lead vocals on You’re Gonna Miss Me, an energetic, poignant, swinging 1950s-style C&W number: the Jingle Bell Rock quote from the lead player was pricelessly funny. Then they swung their way through a snarling take of Looking for a Fight, the title track to their 2012 cult favorite album.

Next on the bill was a slow, vengeful, blue-flame waltz, followed by a brisk Texas shuffle. It Won’t Hurt (When I Fall Down from This Barstool) was as irresistibly fun, and just as pissed-off, a salute to both the curative and destructive powers of whiskey. They swung a high-energy take of Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues by the tail, then scampered through a lickety-split kiss-off anthem. Then they brought things down with the morosely echoey, clangingThe King of Killing Time, bringing to mind early Willie Nelson. The Sweetback Sisters’ take on honkytonk isn’t cry-in-your-beer music: it’s a middle finger smack in the face of bad times, bitter lemons distilled into spiked lemonade. It’ll be awfully cool to see what else the band has come up with since then.

The Sweetback Sisters Beat the Heat

“You people are the tough New Yorkers, coming out in this hundred degree heat,” the Sweetback Sisters’ Emily Miller told the crowd at Madison Square Park yesterday. She was right – sort of. For a lot of New Yorkers, being in Manhattan on the Fourth of July is weird, but a whole lot of people were out and working. This year’s Fourth falling in midweek meant that a whole lot of retail was open and hoping to lure the small percentage of tourists who’d ventured out of their airconditioned rooms. The only places that weren’t open seemed to be the dollar pizza places, which are obviously rolling in dough and can well afford to lose a sleepy holiday’s worth of traffic. And while the crowd watching the Sweetback Sisters was pretty heatstruck, the half-Brooklyn, half-West Virginia band shook it off and turned in a typically gorgeous, soaring show.

The band’s frontwomen, Miller – who switched between fiddle and guitar – and Zara Bode, who played both guitar and tenor banjo – model themselves on popular 50s act the Davis Sisters (the group that springboarded the career of the legendary Skeeter Davis), putting an energetic, purist update on oldschool honkytonk and pre-rockabilly sounds. The two women have very similar voices, harmonizing and trading lines throughout the show to the point where it was hard to tell who was singing what if you weren’t paying close attention. Miller has a crystalline Laura Cantrell clarity; Bode’s voice is a little lower-pitched, sometimes growly and seductive. Jesse Milnes, the band’s main songwriter, took most of the solos on fiddle, switching to guitar on a couple of tunes, alongside Peter Bitenc on bass, Stefan Amidon on drums and the latest edition to the band, the amazing Ryan Hommel on electric guitar. They opened with Texas Bluebonnets, the irrestistible western swing-flavored opening track on their latest album Looking for a Fight and followed with Thank You, a swaying kiss-off song with a nice, trad guitar solo from Hommel and then a straight-up version of Patsy Cline’s Honey Do. Those songs were great: purist, soulful, fun to hear, but they gave no indication of the fireworks in store. Those started with the briskly shuffling Walking in My Sleep, where Hommel took his first opportunity to fire off an unreal, wild, psychedelic solo, half Radio Birdman, half bluegrass. Later on he would take more of those, most exhilaratingly on a couple of new tunes, the energetic, bluegrass-infused Trouble’s Gonna Get You – where Bode went into totally sultry mode, a cruel thing to do on such a hot day – and the lickety-split, aphoristic, Buck Owens-flavored I’ll Cry Cry Cry, where Amidon traded off with the women in his sly, tongue-in-cheek baritone.

Not everything was that fast and ferocious. Two of the afternoon’s best songs were a casually stinging, beautifully harmonized version of Jimmy Martin’s Don’t Cry to Me, and a new one, The King of Killing Time, Hommel taking it up out of sad, slow, honkytonk into psychedelic rock and handing it off to Milnes, who took it back to Nashville circa 1955. There were other bands on the bill, including the popular, oldtimey Spuyten Duyvil, and the prospect of sticking around for them would have been a lot more tempting if the shadows had stayed where they were as the scorching sun crossed the sky.

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.