Friday, November 30, 2012

Album Review: The Trishas - "High, Wide & Handsome"

Around the beginning of May earlier this year, I discovered what has become one of my favorite bands, the Turnpike Troubadours. Having just read a review of their new album at the time, Goodbye Normal Street, as is quite natural I went and purchased the album they released two years before that called Diamonds and Gasoline. This purchase was based off of just one listen of the country-rocker "7 & 7." I was hooked immediately, and that doesn't happen very often.

I am rambling, which I tend to do, so allow me an attempt at reaching the point: After completely wearing out Diamonds, I finally purchased the excellent Goodbye Normal Street and was quickly taken by track number five, "Call A Spade A Spade," a stunning, harmony-soaked throwback to the classic country duets of old, featuring vocals for the ever-important female portion of the song by one Jamie Wilson, whose name I had never ran across before. After hearing that voice, so solid, so emotional and on the verge of breaking, and with (to my ears) a little hint of Iris Dement, a quick Google search later yielded the discovery of The Trishas, the all-female quartet of which Jamie Wilson is a part.

After releasing an EP a couple years ago (They Call Us The Trishas) and a single late last year ("Drive"), perhaps to keep current fans satiated and the blogosphere abuzz, the group at last released their first full-length album on August 7th of 2012. It is a strange grace that I only discovered the group a few months ago, so I did not have to wait long for new music to come down the pike -- which, after hearing the EP and the single and watching clips of them on Youtube (filmed by Music Fog) singing their hearts out -- still couldn't come soon enough. Suffice it to say that however long one had anticipated the release of High, Wide & Handsome, the wait has proven well worth it.

The most obvious thing that sticks out about The Trishas are the beautiful harmonies, which in my mind somewhat resemble Little Big Town if that group was all female and not so slickly produced on record. High, Wide & Handsome is crisp but not slick, organic yet full and alive. Each voice is allowed to breathe, both alone and together, and when that first wall of four-part harmony hits on the lead track called "Mother of Invention," you'll remember why you love music. The least obvious thing about The Trishas are the lyrics, and that's only because it takes awhile for you to really hear them, for their heart, soul, wit, and poetry to shine through, simply because the hook with which the harmonies reel you in is so sharp. With that said, here are my thoughts on High, Wide & Handsome track by track. (Sidenote: Song by song reviews do not lend themselves to conciseness and are perhaps even a little self-indulgent. But for me it is an exercise in honing my music writing. It also allows [and demands] me too dig deeper into an album so that I know what I want to say about each song other than "it's good" or "super catchy," and I figure what better album to attempt that than on one of my favorites of 2012. So here goes. One last thing: brevity is not my strong suit anyway, and much less so in a song by song review; for that I apologize. I do hope those of you who make it through to the end enjoy reading and, more importantly, are convinced to take the journey this record takes you on yourself.)

1) Mother of Invention (songwriters: Jamie Wilson, Natalie Hemby) - With a chorus that says, "Turn an old wagon wheel into a chandelier hanging from the ceiling/ Move the mirror from the chifferobe into the hall where it's more appealing/ It's the lack of creature comforts that make you pay a little bit more attention/ Yes indeed, necessity is the mother of invention," track one could be a sort of philosophical statement for the band. Take it as it comes; use what you've got; do what you can; be creative. Immediately the strengths of the the group are displayed: unique individual voices that yet seem like they were made to sing together (Jamie Wilson starts things off but I believe every member sings individually on this one), catchy melodies, literate and clever lyrics, and uncompromisingly country instrumentation (fiddle, mandolin). I believe it's a song that does a great job of letting the listener know whether they want to stick around or not. And with everybody that answer should be a resounding "Yes."

2) Strangers (Jamie Wilson, Kelley Mickwee, John Eddie) - Truly as good as country music gets, and by that I mean that this is a beautifully sad song. Savannah Welch takes the lead here, imbuing lyrics like "I miss the me I used to be" and "I barely recognize myself" with a vulnerability and sense of tragedy that brings the truth of them home, allows them to be feelings rather than just words. It's a song about the dark side of marriage, about being with someone for a time and then realizing it's gotten to a point where you don't know them, they don't know you, and you don't know you. The second verse attempts to put words to this unexplainable disconnect: "Sometimes when the light's just right/ It's you who's kissin' me goodnight/ When the morning comes it's her I find instead/ Who are these strangers in our bed?" On top of that, memories are conjured up by detailed imagery ("Wedding pictures on the TV set") and the line that encapsulates it all ("There's nothing stranger than being strangers"). In short, this is a song that goes on that playlist you have of songs you listen to by yourself with a bottle.

3) Little Sweet Cigars (Jamie Wilson, Evan Felker) - Evan Felker is the lead singer and primary songwriter for the Turnpike Troubadours, and this song has his name all over it. It'd fit perfectly on that band's Goodbye Normal Street, and is similar in tempo and rhythm to "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" on that album. It's a song about a young girl who falls for an older man who smells like "little sweet cigars." She is immediately smitten: "Your hand it held my own right through the corridor of cars/ and led me to the world of wishing wells and shooting stars." Of course, the narrative from this point can only lead to one place: heartbreak. She slowly begins to realize what a slick talker he is and how she is being deceived: "When you're kissed by a fool then you're fooled by a kiss." Yet even at the end of  the song, perhaps garnering a sense of humor about her mistakes or living in defiance of regret, she states, "But looking at it now I might have done it all the same." In other words, she learned a lot. The production is rounded out by a smooth electric guitar, fast drumbeat, and subtle "oohs" and "aahs" for background vocals. It almost sounds like a more melodic, more angelic Johnny Cash song, thanks in no small part to the superb lead vocals of Jamie Wilson.

4) Liars and Fools (Kelley Mickwee, Jason Eady) - This song gets right to the point by starting with its simple, catchy, and brilliant chorus: "If I had to choose between liars and fools/ Then I'd choose the fools every time/ 'Cause liars they live in their own little world/ While the fools lay it all on the line." I mean, just try not singing along to that. The simple lyrics are complimented by simple yet effective bluegrassy instrumentation: fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, tambourine. Kelley Mickwee proves herself to be excellent on lead vocals, singing with a gorgeous, defiant earthiness that is rich with emotion and even a little celebratory. And together with Jason Eady she comes up with lyrical gems like this: "And if I get burned I wanna get burned by the fire/ Not hiding from the ashes in the trees." Be sure to listen closely to the last verse as well for a clever twist that calls into question the reliability of the narrator. She's nothing if not honest and proud about it.

5) Cheater's Game (Savannah Welch, Liz Foster, Bruce Robison) - Commanding lead vocals on this track is Liz Foster, who to my ears is the most "classically soulful" sounding singer in The Trishas. It adds a needed layer to the four-part harmonies and certainly stands out when going it alone. As the title of the song might suggest, "Cheater's Game" is a play on the classic trope of cheating in country music songwriting. It's another tale of a strong woman going through some tribulation, who in the end is going to be just fine and perhaps come out of it with a better sense of identity. This is exemplified at the end of the song with the zinger of a line, "Anyone here can see all the ways that she ain't me/ And I know you gotta hate that perfume." I'm not 100% sure, but I'd be willing to bet that, woman to woman, that's about as sharp a putdown as one can make.

6) Looking At Me (Jamie Wilson) - Jamie Wilson is in full control of this song, taking on songwriting and lead vocal duties all on her own. It contains one of the best lyrics on the album, one that is alone worth the price: "Well, a fire burns slow if you know how to build it/ The heat travels up from the ground toward the trees/ And when the winds change, I know smoke follows beauty/ I follow it up till it's you that I see." There's just really not much one can say after that. A man can say he's been fortunate in life when he's had such things sung about him. This ballad rests gently on instrumentation that includes acoustic guitar, mandolin, steel guitar, and a heartbreaking vocal performance by Jamie Wilson.

7) Why (Liz Foster, Kelley Mickwee) - This is a song about scumbag guys and the girls who, for one reason or another, find it hard to leave them. It is essentially a song about how every woman desires to be treated. The man the song speaks to obviously does not know how to treat a woman: he talks down to her, robs her of her inner peace, and doesn't call her "baby." The narrator admonishes him, "If you love me, be a man, treat me right." It is something of a scathing indictment, not only of guys who are douchebags to their women, but of guys who simply don't respect women in general and don't seem to understand the little, simple things that play a big part in making a relationship work. In a way, however, some of the blame also lies on the woman for continuing to give him a chance. Her admonishments thus far are only threats not promises: "Leave you, I just might," she says. Instrumentally, the song is quite spare, allowing the soaring four-part harmonies to fly even higher.

8) Over Forgiving You (Savannah Welch, Jason Eady) - Jason Eady, whose album AM Country Heaven, was released earlier this year, lends his immense songwriting talents to this heartbreakingly defiant tune while his co-writer Savannah Welch takes lead vocal duties. And Welch sings the hell out of this song; providing a nice balance to the somewhat laid back production, there is a fragility to her voice that makes it sound as if with every line she sings she is trying to hold back tears. That's because moving on is hard, and this is song about that moment in someone's life when they decide to move past a painful memory, choosing not let the pain dictate the course of their life. A man has ended the relationship with the narrator, and not on good terms. My favorite part of the song is the lyrical daggers that Eady and Welch come up with: "You left me fighting for my life/ That's a hell of a high road to take;" "It's been a long time darling, since you went and ran off like you did/ Must've took a lot of courage/ The way you went and ran off like you did;" and to cap it all off at the end of the song, "The hardest part of getting over, comes down to what you rise above." The most telling and interesting line is the one from which the title derives: "I'm through with missing you, over forgiving you today." She never comes right out and says that she forgives him. If fact, I would argue that this is song about the insanely difficult nature of forgiveness, and how the narrator simply can't find it in herself to do (yet), but she still decides to "get over" anyway for her life's own sake. And perhaps there is a little satisfaction for her in the fact that he left her all alone, and now that's what he is. Electric and steel guitars round out production that sounds full but decidedly uncluttered. For lack of a better term, it's a very pretty piece of heartbreaking music to listen to. This right here, folks, is exquisite songwriting.

9) One Down (Kelley Mickwee, Brandy Zdan) - Joining Mickwee on songwriting duties is Brandy Zdan, who opened for and (I believe) played additional instruments for The Trishas on their tour supporting the release of High, Wide & Handsome. I must admit that I haven't quite figured out the meaning of this song yet, which I am fine with. Some songs take longer than others to reveal themselves, some perhaps never do, and time may reveal that some meanings you thought you had discovered have slowly changed and become something else entirely. That's simply what art does. "One Down" seems vaguely to be about a relationship, perhaps a passionate one that ends abruptly, but the nuances of its genesis and demise are left open to interpretation based on the stark images presented. And it's in the imagery that the song finds its strongest aspect: heat and burning and flames ("If there's nothing left to burn/ Set yourself on fire") and colors (I'm a solid white line, you're black and blue/ The rust stains swell, red comin' through"). Mickwee lays down an impressive vocal that is restrained when necessary.

10) Cold Blooded Love (Liz Foster, Dustin Welch) - It's fitting that this song follows "One Down," because melodically and musically these two songs stand out from the rest of the album. "Cold Blooded Love" sounds like a cabaret style lounge song that would fit snugly somewhere in Over the Rhine's catalogue. The first time I heard it I immediately thought it would be the perfect song for a David Lynch film like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive. It's got a spooky melody, and if I remember those movies correctly, Lynch loves a good scene full of symbolism that takes place in a cabaret lounge. The theme of the song is encapsulated from the outset by the first line: "With every gleam of light there comes a burning flame." In other words, what can seem good for you at first can ultimately end up destroying you. In this case there's a man who the narrator feels wrong but "so right" about at the same time. He was at first an answer to hopes and prayers, but now he's only a sickness. What the cure? Allow Liz Foster to belt out the answer: "Now that man is a deadly disease and the only remedy/ Oh man, I can't take it, but I can't shake myself clean." Now who hasn't felt that way; you dig yourself into a deeper and deeper hole, and by some backwards form of logic, you feel the only way to dig yourself out is to dig even deeper. (Oh, to be human!) Foster absolutely belts this one, and the background vocals from the other Trishas on the chorus only add to the spooky dark humor of the whole affair. There are also a couple of sweet fiddle solos throughout the song that are not showy but accentuate the mood. A nice change of pace.

11) Rainin' Inside (Kelley Mickwee, Kevin Welch) - "Billie Holliday is killing me." Do first lines get better than that? I'm not even familiar with that much of Holliday's music and the line does for me what it's supposed to: it let's me know this is going to be a sad fucking song (I suppose the title tilts me toward that direction as well). It's a beautiful, simple, emotionally true song about heartbreak and the power of music to give you something and someone to relate to in its midst; it's about "dropping the needle" on an old vinyl record, sitting alone in your favorite chair, and just listening (ahem...alcohol may be involved). The beautiful image of a woman sitting by herself in a room in her house while rain comes down all around her is created; tonight, there is no shelter that can protect her from her pain. It's raining inside, literally, but also raining inside of herself; her heart, her soul.

12) The Fool (Courtney Patton) - The only song on High, Wide & Handsome that one of the Trishas didn't co-write is one where they all chime in on the singing. You know the song must be special if they didn't have a hand in writing it; it is. "The Fool" is a standout track on an album full of them. Instrumentation that includes mandolin and steel guitar is augmented by melancholy lyrics about a girl who is chasing everything that's bad for her. The tragedy lies in the fact that she doesn't know it, and if she does, that makes it even more tragic. "Let's talk about this fool that I'm sure we both know," the song starts. This line tells the listener that the subject of the song is someone who's made some bad decisions, someone perhaps the narrator can relate to more than they'd like to admit, someone perhaps who is the narrator. When the banjo kicks in on the third verse and that first line is repeated as the last, it becomes clear that the this is, by extension, a song about the listener as well. We've all before been that "fool" in love.

13) John Wayne Cowboy (Jamie Wilson, Owen Temple) - This is probably the swampiest, most upbeat, and most fun track on the record. The arrangement, the melody, and that steel guitar just sound downright dirty. Jamie Wilson is singing here about a certain type of man, one who doesn't come off as a faux-machismo douchebag, but as authentic. He's a rough-and-tumble, look-you-in-the-eye, firm-handshake, no bullshit kind of man. Some would call this type of man John Wayne-esque, hence the title of the song. It probably references a few of his movies, but I'm only familiar with The Searchers so I may have missed a few of them. But it doesn't matter when a song's this good. The worst part about it is the steel guitar solo that kicks in around the 2:50 mark doesn't last nearly long enough. Still, it is five seconds of beautiful twangy brilliance.

14) Gold & Silver (Liz Foster, Stephen Simmons) - What better way to end an album than a song about a man who imagines the type of girl he could get if only he had money, and a narrator (the girl) who assures him: "You think that you look better in gold and silver/ But gold and silver won't make you mine." It's a bit of a statement song that flies in the face of society's rules when it comes to romantic love. It flies in the face of what seems to have almost become a social norm. (As an aside, the song does not state that unemployment without the desire for employment is an attractive quality.) Hollywood year after year churns out stories about this kind of love from the fake factory in an attempt to capture what this three minute song does, but they aren't nearly as earnest or honest, as sweet or practical as "Gold & Silver."

15) A Far Cry From You (bonus track from digital album version) (Kelly Mickwee, Savannah Welch, Jim Lauderdale) - Co-written with the great Jim Lauderdale and featuring Raul Malo's tasteful, unmistakeable guitar and gorgeous harmonies, this is one hell of a bonus track. I can only imagine the reason it wasn't technically part of the final album (it would fit great somewhere in the middle) is because fourteen is already an immense number of songs. As many can probably deduce from the title, it's about trying to overcome the hold a past love has on you, but to your detriment you keep comparing your current potential mates to this person of the past. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, and it sounds impeccable.

With all that said -- if you can't tell, I think you should own this album. I believe there is a certain sort of timeless quality to roots music in general, and The Trishas have created something with High, Wide & Handsome that tends toward that direction, which -- this being their first full-length album -- is mighty impressive. These ladies are without question the americana/roots band to watch over the next few years, and if there was in any justice in the world they would be on the brink of blowing up the country charts. But, in truth, the songs here are so authentic that it would be jarring to hear one of them crammed between Rascal Flatts and Luke Bryan.

I'm looking forward with much anticipation to watching The Trishas grow as songwriters. They have set the bar pretty damn high for themselves with High, Wide & Handsome and even with They Call Us The Trishas, but that's just what great artists do. A wellspring of good songs comes from a foundation of genuine talent, which is absolutely what this quartet has running through its veins. And the best part is this is only the beginning.

*Visit The Trishas' website for song samples, lyrics, & to purchase an album, and also for a great write-up that tells about some of the history of the band and about the new album.

*Also, visit Music Fog to watch some excellent videos recorded of The Trishas, with a short write-up accompanying each one.

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