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RECORD RACK

Backup harmonies head to the front

June 24, 2008|Ann Powers

The Watson Twins

Fire Songs (Vanguard)

***

Languor is a risky quality for musicians to cultivate: The Path of Slow has led countless down-tempo electronica acts into the dead-end of dinner music. But when slow works, it can be voluptuously pleasurable, as the Watson Twins show on their lovely full-length debut.

Repeated listenings benefit this meticulously produced offering of California back-porch pop; though its 11 tracks tend to blur at first, over time the whole effort seduces, earning a spot with similar unhurried gems like Mazzy Star's "She Hangs Brightly" and Beth Orton's "Central Reservation."

Identical kin Leigh and Chandra Watson perfected their genetically superior harmonies as backup singers in the band Slydell and then with Jenny Lewis. Stepping out front, they benefit from the modesty that comes from learning how to blend in with every sound around them. As twins, they can shape-shift even more effectively than most polyphonic siblings; the aura they project, of one voice split in two, enhances their ability to cast a spell.

Their producers, L.A. scene vets J. Soda and Russell Pollard, encourage the band to lay back and blend in, so that the music achieves seamlessness: only the horns on "Map to Where You Are" really announce themselves. Like a lot of contemporary pop that gets labeled "alternative country," the Watson Twins sound borrows from various roots styles in a knowing way, filtering country and soul elements through the lens of previous re-interpreters like Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt (and Natalie Merchant, who's the twins' lost triplet as far as vocal tone goes).

The lyrics contemplate relationships, mostly with bad boys or girls, and the sometimes melancholy drift of young adulthood. There's also an attention-getting cover of the much-beloved Cure song "Just Like Heaven," which turns that nervous smooch into a sweet slow dance.

The Twins can do retro-pop, as on the xylophone-kissed album opener "How Am I to Be," but they're of their own generation, recycling influences to accommodate their own ideas instead of simply paying homage.

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-- Ann Powers

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Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released.

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