Sweet Jean – Dear Departure (Sweet Jean Music)
Reviewed by Brian Wise.
Sometimes musicians can create such strong first impressions that they even if they are relatively unknown at the time you first encounter them – as in the case of my first encounters with Sweet Jean, Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch, Valerie June and Trixie Whitley – a powerful memory can linger. I first saw these acts in vastly different circumstances but if first impressions are best they certainly passed the test.
Sime Nugent and Alice Keath were playing in the front bar of a small inner-suburban pub one night when I arrived with a bunch of fellow broadcasters intent on socialising. The music was not only an unexpected bonus but also one that was totally distracting because it was apparent that this duo – then yet unnamed – had that an indefinably compelling quality. I spent the rest of the evening listening to the music.
It was certainly refreshing to hear a combination that was not trying to emulate Gillian Welch and David Rawlings yet was able to capture some of the same emotive power. In the past few years I have seen so many ‘duos’ that have been getting rave reviews but seem to me to be so blatantly imitative that they have not impressed. No names, no pack drill, as they say. (They have sounded good but there’s nothing else there).
The Sweet Jean duo on the other hand has immediately established its ‘own’ style – which borrows but does not clone. Undoubtedly, they share some influences with their American counterparts but they draw from an even deeper well.
“If there wasn’t Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings sort of towering over the duo format,” Keath noted recently, “I think we probably still would have wanted to push it sonically, because it’s just something that we’re interested in.”
“We started playing old, kind of very trad folk music, and I think the record did take a while for us to bring it together ,” says Nugent. He cites Doc Boggs, Karen Dalton, Lou Reed, Camera Obscura, Feist and Dusty Springfield as influences – which tells you everything and nothing about the music.
It is the same on the debut album, Dear Departure, a wonderful record that has enough going on under the surface to draw you in and keep you interested throughout; and, at 38 minutes in length, it doesn’t wear out it’s welcome.
I saw them at a recent CD launch show that contained all the songs from this new album plus one from Doc Boggs and a terrifically moody cover of The Motels’ ‘Total Control’ and they were on stage for just an hour! A perfect, compact set.
Sime Nugent is also an accomplished songwriter in his own right, which no doubt added some experience to the fledgling duo. He is also an excellent carpenter and cabinet-maker, which might help to explain the time and care taken in fashioning this album.
No doubt Nugent will continue to play his own music and still play with the Wilson Pickers but with this duo he has stumbled onto something magical. The two voices here seem perfectly matched and at times the harmonies are stunning. Understated but still stunning.
The first single, ‘Shiver & Shake,’ is now 18 months old (and was my 2012 Song of The Year). It is one of those ‘earworms’ that once heard insinuates itself into your brain. While it is a little like Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ on hopped up moonshine its subject matter is far darker – a Grimm’s fairytale gone wrong. The song’s protagonist goes ‘down to the gallows’ to ‘cut the bodies down, turn the fire to a blaze.’ Definitely not a love song.
Keath and Nugent teamed up with producer John Castle (Washington, Bamboos, The Drones etc) who captures a completely natural sound that belies the fact that the album took more than a year to make.
“I think we were enjoying working in the studio too much,” says Keath, “and I guess the scope became so much bigger. We started out playing as a duo, obviously, just acoustically, and that’s how we were originally going to record the album and, as it happens, we kept revising and building on it. It was a very considered process.”
“We became interested in how to marry some of those older influences with new musics that we like,” adds Nugent, “and use production techniques that we like. It did take us a while to work, the three of us together, Alice and myself and John, to find some shape for that in the studio environment.” The result is a triumph.
‘Tomorrow Morning,’ a song they claim is the closest they have come to writing a love song, is a powerful opener and a good example of the tasteful production, employing a string section to add colour but not overpower it. ‘Hello Concrete,’ deals with the frustration of urban living and begins almost like a Sufjan Stevens ballad. ‘Parachutes’ is gently haunting.
‘Rise and Fall’ is more upbeat and is on a par with ‘Shiver and Shake,’ which itself makes a welcome appearance later: it appears to be gently lilting but is given some muscle by Castle’s production. ‘I’ve got a silver bullet, I just need a gun,” sings Keath.
‘Maureen’ sees Nugent take lead vocal on another murder song – this time up-tempo rather than a ballad. Perhaps the standout song is ‘Annabelle,’ which according to Keath ‘draws on ideas from Nabokov, Edgar Allan Poe, Neil Young, William Blake and Urge Overkill’!
Dear Departure ends in a kind of folk reverie with the ballads ‘Angels Come To Get You,’ (apparently inspired by the Reverend Gary Davis song ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’), ‘Down In The Valley’ and ‘Little Stream.’
Not only in contention as the Australian debut album of the year Dear Departure certainly ranks Sweet Jean alongside any of the numerous Americana counterparts who might get more publicity but will be unlikely to produce anything this good.