THE SWEETBACK SISTERS
It's been ten years since The Sweetback Sisters first began forging their distinct sonic universe of golden era country, and on their new album, King Of Killing Time, (Out August 25th on Signature Sounds) they push their sound into more adventurous and playful territory than ever before.
Centered around the charismatic, airtight harmonies of Emily Miller and Zara Bode, the album's ten tracks are a mix of infectious originals and unexpected interpretations of everything from George Jones to Gram Parsons. Hints of jazz and ragtime flesh out the Sisters' unique brand of classic country and rockabilly rave-ups, as Miller, Bode, and their remarkably versatile band conjure up a singular blend of heart, humor, and virtuosic musicianship.
Hailed as "brilliant" by NBC New York, The Sweetback Sisters first emerged in 2007 with their debut EP, 'Bang!' The collection earned them a record deal with stalwart indie label Signature Sounds, and over the course of three ensuing albums, the band built a dedicated following in the US and Europe and racked up a heap of critical acclaim. The New Yorker raved that the women are "strong singers who revel in close harmonies," while Sing Out! said that their music "bristles with the energy of the very best young American performers," and NPR praised them as "Americana darlings with a roadhouse edge." With a live show that The Boston Globe described as "the perfect balance of sass, sincerity and swing," the Sisters have performed everywhere from A Prairie Home Companion to Mountain Stage and graced festivals from coast to coast in addition to selling out numerous theaters with their annual Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular.
If The Sweetback Sisters have seemed uncharacteristically quiet over the last two years, though, it's with good reason. Both Miller and Bode got married and had children, a development which colors their perspective throughout the album. The temporary slowdown also meant that the band had an atypically long time to hone the new material before they headed north to track at Vermont's beautiful Guilford Sound studio. Capturing the essence and energy of the band's live show was essential to the their vision for the album, and the atmosphere in Guilford made for an ideal recording environment.
"We'd been performing these songs for some time and knew the material in and out," Miller reflects. "That meant we could relax about the technical stuff and really get lost in the performances. Once we were mixing, we found ourselves going after the vibe of those initial playbacks and couldn't rest until we reclaimed that feeling."
The record opens with "Gotta Get A-Goin'," a lighthearted track that moves at a breakneck pace and dates back to the Sisters' very first live performance. Originally recorded in the 1950's by country duo The Davis Sisters (another pair of harmonizers who, like Miller and Bode, were actually unrelated by blood), the song showcases the frontwomen's impossibly perfect vocal blend and their band's dazzling instrumental prowess. On "I'm Gonna Cry" (penned by Miller's husband Jesse Milnes), the Sisters channel the mischievous theatrics of country's early days, while Cindy Walker's "It's All Your Fault" gets a swinging Dixieland clarinet treatment, and "That's All It Took" takes on new life over shimmering pedal steel and mournful fiddle as Bode and drummer Stefan Amidon channel Gram and Emmylou. For her pair of songwriting contributions, Miller dug deep and tapped into the excitement and trepidation of taking the plunge into marriage, with "One Day At A Time" offering an antidote for anxiety about the f-word ("forever") and "I Got Lucky With You" winking slyly over some risqué double entendre.
Songs like "Trouble"—a runaway freight train of a song propelled forward by Bode's stellar vocals and fiddler Ben Sanders' remarkably dexterous playing—and the bluesy "Don’t Worry"—a Marty Robbins classic—stand out with an extra edge of grit and twang due in no small part to the brilliant dueling fretwork of former guitarist Ross Bellenoit and current guitarist Ryan Hommel. The two joined forces in the studio, feeding off each other's energy and trading searing licks to push the songs to new heights.
"We've always been such a family operation that it made sense to be joined by an old friend in the studio," says Bode. "Ross originated some of these parts, but Ryan has taken them to a whole new level. I'll admit, it was a gamble to throw them into the ring together, but they're both such masters that it came together seamlessly, giving us just the sound we were looking for. It was a true testament to their talents and their character."
The album ends with a heartrending, slow-burning take on "If The Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," which finds our leading ladies trading off vocals and stacking harmonies until, by the end, the whole band has joined in and raised their voices together. It's a powerful moment, one in which these gifted and inspired artists feel less like a band and more like a family.
Perhaps, in that alternate universe, they are all related by blood. Kin or not, one thing's for sure: The Sweetback Sisters' blend of magical harmonies, blazing leads, and charging rhythms doesn't just look back on honky tonk with fond nostalgia, but rather moves it forward into the 21st century, presenting a vital take on an All-American genre. With King Of Killing Time, The Sweetback Sisters have hit their own golden era, and it only gets brighter from here.