The Sweetback Sisters
Sunday July 20, 2014 @ 7:00 PM
Sweetback Sisters Emily Miller and Zara Bode may not be blood relations, but their precise, family-style harmonies recall the best of country music from the Everlys to The Judds, as well as the spirited rockabilly energy of Wanda Jackson, one of the band’s role models. Like the artists they admire, the Sweetbacks are concerned with the traditional subjects of heartbreak, revenge, remorse and staying strong in the face of relationships gone wrong, albeit with a contemporary sensibility. “We’re a renegade retro band that mixes up country, swing and honky tonk,” explains Bode. “Sometimes what we deliver is straight out of the 50s; other times it’s BR549 meets The B52s.
The Sisters have been touring relentlessly since they released Chicken Ain’t Chicken in 2009. Their new CD, Looking For A Fight showcases the band’s razor sharp musicianship, complex arrangements and growing confidence as songwriters. "We tried to recreate the energy we get when we connect with an audience over the course of a song,” Bode says. “The basic tracks were all done live, and we recorded most of the vocals with Emily and I crowded around one microphone. It gave the tracks a certain intimacy.
The songs were cut onto analogue tape to capture the classic touch the band brings to the music. “We weren't looking for perfection, just takes that truly felt good and really grooved,” Miller adds. “Tape gives the songs a warm texture, and we blended old techniques and equipment with modern ones to get the sound and feel we were going for. The RCA ribbon mic we used for the vocals once belonged to the old Columbia Studios. I'd bet a dime that Miles Davis and Johnny Cash played into the very same one.
The band worked with producer Devin Greenwood to capture the sound of their favorite early country recordings. “We chose Devin because, although he’d never worked on anything as retro or countrified as The Sweetback Sisters, he has a very discerning ear and distinctive style,” says the band’s lead guitarist Ross Bellenoit. “He prepared by spending weeks immersed in the recording techniques and arrangements of the country records of the 50s and 60s. He put together the best gear and engineers for the job and managed to sculpt a timeless sound. He has an ability to hone in on the quality that makes a song great to help bring out our full potential on every track.
Like their raucous stage show, Looking For A Fight balances yesterday’s hits with contributions from the band’s four songwriters, Bode, Miller, Bellenoit and fiddler Jesse Milnes. And while the music may be energetic and sassy, sentiments of heartache, loss and longing are dominant. “Those are the themes that make country songs resound with listeners,” Miller says. “We didn’t only want to make a classic sounding record, but a classic feeling record as well.
The album opens with “Love Me, Honey, Do” a Patsy Cline hit from 1959 given a driving performance that features a spirited vocal from Bode, Stefan Amidon’s subtle percussion accents, Peter Bitenc’s bouncy, syncopated bass and a guitar solo from Bellenoit that channels both Bob Wills and Carl Perkins. Milnes’ “Thank You” is a more straightforward swing tune, with jaunty fiddling that completes this kiss-off to a no-good lover. Milnes also wrote the album’s title track, “Looking for a Fight,” a dark country rocker complete with spooky tremolo guitar and aggressive vocals from Bode and Miller that suggest the fighting isn’t a metaphor for anything but fisticuffs.
The Traveling Wilburys seem like an unlikely source for a cover tune, being an 80s singer/songwriter super group, but the Sisters bring “Rattled” back to the 50s with Bode’s reverb-drenched vocals and Bellenoit’s rockabilly guitar fills. Miller sings her self-penned scorcher, “Run Home and Cry,” a saucy reprimand of a two-timing lover, fueled by Jesse Milnes’ wild fiddling and Amidon’s double-time drumming. With a clever lyric conveying pangs of loss, longing and resignation, you could add Bellenoit’s “The Heart Of My Mind” to a playlist of old Willie Nelson and George Jones songs and no one would guess it was written only a year or so ago. Bode channels centuries of heartbreak into her restrained vocal, with Bellenoit’s shimmering guitar all but crying in the background.
Every track on Looking For a Fight includes a few subtle surprises - ensemble vocals a la The Sons of the Pioneers on “Cowboy Ham and Eggs,” honky tonk piano on “It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down From This Bar Stool,” the raw passion of Bode’s vocal on Hazel Dickens’ old-time ballad “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” On Looking For a Fight, the Sisters and their talented brothers continue to forge their own sound by delivering arrangements that combine the soul of classic Nashville with an undeniably contemporary edge.