Ear Say: Those Harmonizing Ladies II

The Sweetback Sisters, The Boxcar Lilies, The Carper Family

By: - Nov 11, 2013

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If I have my way, this theme, Harmonizing Ladies, will become at the least an annual event.

I am attracted to any group, male, female or mixed that effectively use vocal harmonies. In Roots and Americana music harmonies become even more important because the voice more clearly acts as a musical instrument as well as method of transmitting the literal message to the audience. Folk music has a strong tradition of harmonizing, partially because when instruments were unavailable, blended voices contributed to the musical texture. Only rarely in my limited attempts to sing along with others have I found myself able to find that sweet harmonizing position, and so I have great respect for those who seem to effortlessly slip in and out of it.

If you are interested and did not catch last year’s tribute to Harmonizing Ladies it can be found here. And by the way, The Good Lovelies, which were noted in that piece and featured in a subsequent review of their Live At The Revolution CD have just won two Canadian Folk Music Awards for best ensemble and best vocal group for that release.

 The three groups examined this time are all new to me over the last six months. For two of them I have attended live performances and can speak to their abilities when not accompanied by studio musicians and digital enhancements. I consider them all very satisfying on cd and heartily encourage you to follow up on them should my comments pique any interest.

The Sweetback Sisters

Looking For A Fight
SIG 2038

Signature Sounds Recordings

EP unnumbered

These ladies, Emily Miller and Zara Bode, would seem to be as different as any two people could be, and yet their voices and their vocal styles complement each other effectively.

Emily, though Kansas born, was raised in Hong Kong where she early participated in her family’s performance group bringing traditional Americana music to Asian audiences.

Zara, granddaughter of one of our counterculture’s most important comic artists, Vaughn Bode, grew up in western Mass and early found that singing was her niche in the artistic landscape. Extensive experience as a backup performer in the New York studio scene polished her harmonizing skills.

But while the ladies front this band, Emily the unabashed hoyden, Zara the more restrained and controlled, (at least for the live performance I witnessed) there is little doubt that the male band members are essential to the fabric and character of this group. Jesse Milnes, Emily’s husband, is clearly a major contributor to the song choices and source material adopted by the group, but even as other members have come and gone, all seem to have some influence over performance arrangements.

Looking For A Fight is a collection of Country covers and originals penned by group members falling mostly into the category of honky tonk roadhouse laments of dysfunctional relationships and self reclamation imperatives. There are some great lyrics here, witness Emily’s first verse from Run Home and Cry.

For years I’ve listened to your moans,
About wanting meat and getting bones,
About how the world just doesn’t understand you.
Well, you used up all my sympathy,
When I caught you stepping out on me,
So cry now baby, find someone who cares.

And haven’t we all been there at one time or another.

Guest musicians add a bit of fill in with keyboards and trumpet to the recording beyond what you would hear in live performance, but the group itself, live, is satisfyingly complete by themselves.

As much as I like this release I like the EP Bulldog even better. The material is traditional, the energies and harmonies richer and rawer. The performances are gripping and demand the listener’s attention and involvement. “Moonshiner,” “Darling, Don’t You Know That’s Wrong” and “Boozefighters” are my particular favorites here.

Both releases are solid efforts and I think sure to please the most discriminating among you. Likewise, I found their live performance a joy.

The Sweetback Sisters-Run Home and Cry


The Boxcar Lilies


Sugar Shack

Heartwood is the first cd recording of The Boxcar Lilies, Berkshire based roots trio consisting of Stephanie Marshall, Katie Clark and Jenny Goodspeed. With the exception of Neil Young’s Old Man and Places on the Highway, penned by Stephanie’s sister, Susan, all the cuts were written by band members alone or in combination.

Sugar Shack is the most recent release and again except for two songs, Towne Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and James Taylor’s “That Lonesome Road,” the songs were, as in Heartwood, written by band members alone or in collaboration.

Most of their songs are romantic in the classic sense, skirting the border between sentiment and sentimentality though seldom crossing over to the schmaltzy side and with a slight leaning more toward reflection and melancholy than to joy.

On solos, their voices are distinctive and once you have experienced them alone, distinguishing them on their leads is easy. Their blends are smooth and complement their phrasing and their accompaniment.

My experience of them live as reported a few weeks ago, gave me an appreciation of the ease with which they establish rapport and intimacy with their audience.

That facility is more obvious in the earlier of these two releases though I find the songwriting in the most recent release a notch better. The disparity for me is the production values on the two releases. To my mind Sugar Shack is over produced and while giving a more polished final product, nevertheless overshadows the intimacy of both the live performances and the more personal performances on Heartwood.

I am inclined to believe that this is due to a difference in delivery, occasioned by polished studio accompanists, nine on Sugar Shack and arranging that strives for a complexity that fails to support as much as overwhelm the vocals.

The theory is that this leaves the ladies free to concentrate on their singing but I am inclined to think that it is the choices they make when playing and singing at the same time that produces their unique synergy and their signature sound. Moreover, the mixing seems to further bury the vocals.

Through it all, the Boxcar Lilies continue to evolve and while I like them live better, Heartwood is more than good enough to remind me why I enjoy them so much.

The Boxcar Lilies - My Love Walks By My Side


The Carper Family

Back When
CD unnumbered

Old Fashioned Gal
CD unnumbered

I have yet to manage being in the same place at the same time as The Carper Family although I do have hopes that someday it will happen. Because of that I am a bit unsure as to how their live performance would match up to these remarkable recordings. While much of the quality of both these recordings doubtless can be attributed to the involvement of near legend, Cindy Cashdollar, studio musician on Back When and producer of Old Fashioned Gal, there are strengths on both these releases which are strictly the province of these three ladies, Melissa (Daddy) Carper, Beth Chrisman and Jenn Miori.

First is the three part harmony which is strong in the first release and even stronger, richer and more varied on the latter.

Second is the quality of the songwriting. The ability to take a mundane event or circumstance, shift the perspective left or right metaphorically and encapsulate it in a song has long been characteristic of many of the most memorable traditional country songs. Melissa’s “Who Are You Texting Tonight?” and (Hey Babe) “Would You Like To Get Some Goats?” (With Me) are two of the originals on the first that speak to this characteristic. Her “My Old Chevy Van” on the latest release in which she confesses to being unfaithful to her current car by considering the purchase of a newer sportier one is quirky and taps into a feeling many of us have had at one time or another.

Fancy Pants” a collaboration with Beth and Jenn, and the concluding ”Ooh Baby”  stand out as well among her contributions.

The covers included here are notable. They include Neil Young’s “Comes A Time”, all countrified, and the schizophrenic “Bad Attitude”, written by K. Euliss, among a handful of others.

The highlight for me and the cut to which I keep returning is the acapella “Aunt Rose.”

Melissa’s voice on this second release seems to have developed a richer timbre and tone and is the more distinctive of the trio. In their harmonies, however, the whole is considerably greater than the sum of the parts.

Melissa on standup bass, Beth on fiddle and Jenn on guitar comprise their live performance accompaniment. In such cases I imagine that the harmonies come even more to the front to fill that background dominated by the studio musicians on these two releases.

In summary, these are two strong outings, with a nod to the latter which shows growth in performance and writing.

The Carper Family – Fancy Pants