The Watson Twins

Talking To You, Talking To Me

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Label: Vanguard Records

On Talking To You, Talking To Me, the Watson Twins swap their homespun country-rock and relaxed delivery for a vamped-up, full sound owing more to jazz and smoke-filled soul than apple pies and slide guitars. It’s an invigorating change of pace from artists best known for staying in the background and one that pays off far more often than not – all of which makes this record’s middling impact more frustrating.

Chandra and Leigh Watson tend to create beautiful and precious music – “adventurous” isn’t an adjective many would associate with their prior records, 2006’s Southern Manners and 2008’s Fire Songs. Still, they were pleasant pieces of mostly gentle music, if not specifically memorable. Each featured the twins doing what they do best- singing sweetly and harmonizing with unearthly precision.

The girls are in fine form here, too – their harmonies are as tight as ever, and their individual turns at lead vocals are both powerful and tasteful. Listeners aren’t going to find divas on this record and they shouldn’t expect to find the energy of, say, a Sharon Jones-type frontwoman, though they will find infinitely more confident leads than on previous releases. They don’t really go for “sexy,” though “seductive” isn’t out of the question – and “sweet” is their bread and butter. Their growth as masters of tone is noticeable over the past years, and takes control of the record.

Those tones don’t end with the sisters’ harmonies, though. The backing musicians consistently flex their muscles here, creating menace to offset the sweetness the Watsons’ vocals can’t betray. The organ stabs on “Harpeth River” are threatening and sharp, while the staccato piano in “Midnight” and “Devil in You” accompanies the lock-step rhythm section perfectly. “Midnight” has a rather blazing guitar solo and rocking instrumental conclusion – and listen to the bass line’s improvised movement! The George Harrison-influenced guitar lines that decorate “Savin’ You” sound great double-tracked. Small moments of brilliant playing are to be found all over the record, making the 40-minute playing time fly by.

So if the vocal and musical tones on this record are minor miracles, what’s left to be frustrated with? In a word, melody. For all their beauty, the Watson Twins simply don’t write memorable hooks or melodies. In art-rock, that’s admirable – in what’s clearly a pop-influenced record, less so. Somehow, these songs have a way of impressing and fading from memory almost instantly. Vocally, the most memorable moments are either harmonies or repetition of the word “no” or “instead.” Their lyrics are self-questioning and love focused, nothing terrible – but nothing great, either.

It’s disappointing when merely “okay” songwriting holds back an obviously talented group. Granted, nearly all the material here is on par with their earlier records, but tracks like “Devil in You,” “Calling Out” and “Harpeth River” hint at a much more dynamic and sophisticated future for these girls and their musicians. For now, they’re still taking small steps towards that goal.

by Jason Stoff
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