The holiday season is a good time of year for pleasant music. I’m not a Christian, but I celebrate Christmas because most of my friends and family celebrate it and honestly, I can’t find fault with a holiday that provides me with a handy reason to give gifts to my loved ones. Also, Christmas is the only time of year I can find mint M&M’s and eggnog in ready supply (though I am not Jewish, I might have to start celebrating Hanukkah if only so I can get my mitts on some latkes. You might think latkes are just potato pancakes, but that’s like saying Van Gogh was just a painter or Glenn Beck is just a moron). I find some Christmas music to be pleasant indeed (the traditional carols tend to be the prettiest), but let’s face it: there is plenty of fuck-awful Christmas music out there and an alarming amount of it is performed by Mariah Carey. Anyway, Christmas puts me (me, of all people!) in the mood for warm and fuzzy music, whether it’s Christmas music or not. And this year, I’ve been getting all the warm and fuzzies I need from the Living Sisters’ debut album, Love to Live.
The Living Sisters are Inara George, Eleni Mandell, and Becky Stark (who is in the band Lavender Diamond and who also sang the part of Margaret on the Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love album). On their MySpace page, the Sisters claim that their raison d’etre is the “sheer physical joy of singing,” which is probably why Love to Live is positively laden with harmonies that quite rightly garner comparisons to the Carter Family. To describe the tones on this record as “dulcet” is somehow still an understatement (although I have to love any record that justifies my use of the word “duclet” in a review). Love to Live is simple, pleasant, and pretty much always satisfying (like a healthy dose of eggnog in my coffee, topped with just dash of cinnamon).
I already mentioned this week that blatant retro fetishes are dangerous things, but the Living Sisters (like Earl Greyhound) put on no airs about their desire to wrap themselves up in the past like it’s a soft blanket, fresh out of the dryer (are my analogies causing you to question my sexuality today? That says more about you than it does about me). For the Sisters, they’re paying a reverent homage to those oldie girl groups (and the aforementioned Carters). And, like Earl Greyhound does on Suspicious Package, the Living Sisters keep Love to Live brief enough that the act doesn’t wear thin. The other thing Mandell, Stark, and George have going for them is that their particular flavor of pastiche lives or dies on strong vocal performances – and these three women can fucking sing. I don’t care if you don’t like the lilting instrumental arrangements or the Wes Montgomery-aping guitars, you can’t hear this record and say with any credibility that the Living Sisters lack vocal talent.
In fact, the weakest moment on Love to Live comes when they stop singing and indulge in an ill-advised spoken-word interlude during the otherwise lovely “Cradle.” It’s too cute for its own good (a problem I sometimes find myself having with Inara George’s other band, The Bird and the Bee) and it makes me cringe every single time I hear it. Of course, I’ve never liked spoken word interludes in songs because, well, if I wanted to hear some asshole talking, I wouldn’t listen to music, would I? (And yes, hip-hop gets a special dispensation here because hip-hop is rhythmic – and sometimes melodic – whereas the type of thing that the Living Sisters do on “Cradle” just takes me right out of the song and drives me fucking nuts.)
Of course, the other great thing about early country and what we now think of as “oldies” (a genre that has basically been pop and rock music from the 50s, 60s, and very early 70s for as long as I’ve been alive. Someday, they’ll have to call that stuff “really fucking oldies” because all the stuff I grew up listening to in the 80s and 90s will be the new oldies) is that, while many of the songs are lyrically kind of dull and unsurprising, you occasionally encounter a slick little innuendo. The Living Sisters present a few of these on Love to Live, and all of them are wrapped up in the loveliest of harmonies. On “Ferris Wheel,” the assertion that there’s “something soft/ that you need to feel” may not explicitly invite the slight brushing of thighs with hands (or other thighs), but it certainly doesn’t discourage it. Pretty much all of “Double Knots” sounds like innuendo to me (I love that word because, if you say it just the right way, it is an innuendo all on its own)- the song’s narrator is way too happy to be tied up and I’m unwilling to dwell on or analyze the intention of the phrase “He’s gonna loosen me up” that follows the chorus.
Sometimes, though, what might seem at first to be an attempt at innuendo ends up being just plain silly. Take “Good Ol’ Wagon”, for instance. I don’t get the metaphor and what’s more, they tell their guy (who was a “good ol wagon” but apparently, he “done broke down”) he “better go to the blacksmith shop” and get himself “overhauled.” Ladies, this is just ridiculous. What your man-wagon clearly needs is a wainwright. A blacksmith might forge and shape the iron parts needed to get your man-wagon “overhauled”; but, because wagons are not just made of iron, only a true wainwright can perform the task at hand. It never hurts to do a little research, Living Sisters.
All kidding aside, if you just listen to tracks like “This Mountain Has Skies” and “How Glad I Am”, it’s very easy indeed to be transported by three voices that work incredibly well together. If the Living Sisters’ goal was to celebrate the “sheer physical joy of singing,” even a curmudgeon like me can honestly say that they hit their mark. Love to Live is quite simply a gorgeous album and its musical beauty is enough to outweigh (by far) its silly, indulgent bits (I was mostly trying to be funny when I mentioned the wainwright thing from “Good Ol’ Wagon”, but those kind of errors in songs bother me a lot more than I’m comfortable admitting) (I just admitted it though) (shit).