The Sweetback Sisters’ latest release, King of Killing Time, features the velvety vocals of Emily Miller and Zara Bode. Grounded in phrasings, melodies, and instrumentation endemic to country music, the singers and band draw tastefully from other genres and subgenres, offering a set of classics and originals that will please purists and adventurists alike.
The opening track, Cy Coben's “Gotta Get a-Going,” first performed by the Davis Sisters in 1953, highlights an affinity with grand matriarchs Sara and Maybelle Carter, pointing toward the album’s more subtle references, the swing and jazz-infused Andrews Sisters and/or Boswell Sisters, and gospel groups such as the abovementioned Davises. Bridging the 1920s, the Prohibition years, and WWII, the Davises, Carters, Andrews trio, and Boswells, among others, performed and recorded during a time when the ability to entertain was highly valued. This emphasis on enrolling the audience — often disdained in contemporary pop and rock domains, where the icon of the self-absorbed artiste is predominant and the listener is frequently regarded as incidental — is aptly displayed in “I Got Lucky with You”: it’s not hard to visualize Miller and Bode singing while they fling wide the door to the bar, beckoning to passersby, contagious grins on their faces:
Now in the art of saying foolish things
I’ve got a silver tongue
When I’m climbing down a ladder
I always miss a rung
I’m not saying that my life’s a wreck
’Cause it really is quite fun
But when I count my lucky stars
You come out number one
“Trouble” opens with a rollicking guitar part a la Luther Perkins or Bob Wootton. Vocals are fluid, progressions standard yet compelling, the choral hook irresistible. The title song conjures Patsy Cline or k.d. lang circa the Owen Bradley-produced Shadowland, hinting at jukebox honky-tonk. The title and hook invoke another world, a 45 on a gramophone, the family watching black and white TV on a Saturday night, the long-suffering voices of Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette.
“I’m Gonna Cry” would go over well on a Hee Haw episode or Grand Ole Opry broadcast. “One Day at a Time,” replete with allusions to courting and a wedding proposal made on bended knee, will further endear the band to Nashville aficionados, aligning the album with perennial country motifs. The album’s closing song, the Harlan Sanders and Richard Beresford-penned “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” is an apt tribute to the corpus of drinking anthems, a more ebullient and communal take on the loner-crying-in-his-whiskey version offered by George Jones in 1981. The tune ends with a singalong, vocals initially accompanied by music, the music then fading, leaving a loose mix of a cappella voices.
While Miller’s and Bode’s vocals are the Sweetback Sisters’ calling card, their band is an integral part of their relatable performances. Ben Sanders on violin offers textured accents and solos, mining standard progressions while exhibiting melodic range. Guitar work by Ryan Hommel and Ross Bellenoit reminds me occasionally of Bill Frisell’s parts on Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20, solo licks drawn from the stock repertoire as well as rock and jazz sources. Bassist Jason Sypher and drummer Stefan Amidon comprise a steady rhythm section, each track moving along like a slow or fast-moving train, depending on style and mood.
The Sweetback Sisters have released six previous albums and EPs. King of Killing Time is a dynamic addition to their oeuvre, affirming them as a traditional act while displaying their eclectic sensibilities.