Need a primer in Americana, crossing all angles and aspirations? Here it is, via Sweden.
Release Date: 27th October 2023
Label: Mother Tarantula Records
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
It seems a long five years since the Swedish trio of sisters, self-styled Queens of Banjo-Punk, delivered us any new music, the truth being the same mitigating circumstance that paused so many a thriving career, namely the worldwide pandemic. Add into the equation the fact that Greta, Stella and Sunniva Bondesson all live now in different countries, and the gap becomes more explicable. Yet it was in neither their native Sweden, Spain nor Germany, respectively, that they convened for this reprise, but Dartmoor, Devon, at the home studio of Sean Lakeman, brother of Sam and Seth, and husband of Kathryn Roberts, with whom he performs. That enough might be sufficient additional appeal to readers of this site, but he is also increasingly in demand as a producer, for the likes of the Levellers, Show Of Hands, Bellowhead and others, anyone, in fact, needing additional handfuls of rustic gravel added to their credibility and credentials.
I have to confess banjo-punk is not really how I would necessarily compartmentalise the Swedish sisters, their oeuvre always seeming a deal smoother, with the polish of a more country-folk hued Fleetwood Mac. Mind you, compared to the sometimes even glossier polish of the ‘other’ Swedish sisters country band, First Aid Kit, I guess they are a little more ragged around the edges. I like them both, but, given the Søderbergs laid out their table with their song, Emmylou, my suggestion might be these girls put one out called Lucinda. (Early Lu being the reference, I might add.) Anyhoo, musing aside, maybe that is why the boy Lakeman has been summonsed. Plus, with the title, and the ominous Roman numeral, never mind end of the bloodline, is this a last gasp from the sibling band? Let’s see and try to gauge.
A sotto voce “Give us another one” comes, from one of the sisters, a split second ahead the infectious riff of Wolf Hook chimes in to open the set. Hook by name and nature, this is a conventional country rumble to acclimatise the ears. It lopes forward like a Wolf, with the harmonies drawing back from main vocalist, Sunniva, like a vapour trail or go-faster stripes, with the repeating twangy guitar motif runs throughout. The bass is a deep and resonant boing and the drums a four-to-the-floor accumulator, so, before you ask, all of the instrumental duties come from the trio, bar a smidgeon of fiddle on this track and one other. Ooo-hoo (as the bvs say). Barely a second and track two, A Little Goes A Long Way climbs straight on board, a power pop janglefest, that outBangles the Bangles, Greta’s vocal, for this one, doing the full Hoffs.
Come To Terms slows things, with clipped guitar and pounding bass, the vocals going from solo, duo to a full trio harmony that brings a shiver, especially in the higher registers. I can imagine Tom Petty singing this one and, so far, there is little evidence of banjo or punk, with precious little overt country/Americana either. This isn’t a complaint. I should add, and I’m liking this new direction. Speaking too soon, Pity Kisses is a lively barroom hoedown, with mandolin to the fore, showing off their confidence in this style. Sunniva’s vocal is a husky purr somewhere between Dolly P and Stevie Nicks. It’s good. With the country fumes now infectious, Miss America is a slick and swift electric ‘southern rock’ hoedown, awash with searing slide and picked guitars. I think there is some banjo in there somewhere too, which, if so, is down to Greta, also the drummer. (Answer: it is probably guitarbanjo, or banjitar, her often hybrid instrument of choice.) The guitar, btw, is Sunniva and the stand-up bass, Stella.
Needing a gasp? The Curse is much slower, a blues, with upclipped guitar shimmering and stuttering. “This is me, take me or leave me,” sings Greta, with a swagger, her voice midway between a scowl and cooing reassurance. Way With Words is the most Mac-cy thus far, albeit if that band had the gift of three female voices. How it is possible that three Scandinavians can offer such a masterclass in so many versions and variations of Americana is quite beyond my understanding, even allowing for the years they spent in the US soaking it all up, 2014 onward, to refine and enhance their existing capture of the genre. (How the heck I failed to catch them at this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival is a more pressing concern….)
Abracadabra does feature banjo, and is prime pop-country, with even a handclap backup to the chorus, and would be a cert for the sort of charts that could take Shania Twain to the top. More than just in name, there is a hint, in the delivery, of Steve Miller’s song of the same name, unless that is just wishful thinking. Stella’s bass offers the main thrust, over more heathaze drenched guitar shadows, for Little Lonesome Hate. Slide guitar adds spectral atmosphere, the girls voices quite spookily witchy as it progresses. The recurring theme of difficult relationships is emerging across the album, that sense of repression manifesting in some angry fiddle sweeps, cutting across the grain of the melody, this, here and earlier, courtesy Lakeman’s brother, Seth. The song feels dark and brooding, as is the arrangement.
Complete contrast comes from the pretty acoustic croon of Stone In My Shoe, vocal and guitar, some delicate piano creeping in. The lyric, mind, “How can I forget you, when you’re a stone in my shoe……” Ouch. Echo-drenched electric guitar finally adds some big-O or Chris Isaak style pathos. An unexpected high point, coming as such a contrast to much the earlier material. Uncertain if the audible yeehaw sees that one off, or beckons in Late In The Morning, a slow burner in the style of Neil Young, aided by the deliberate simplicity of the bass and drums, but I like it. And the song, which contains another beauty of a guitar solo, sedately elegiac, from either Sunniva or Greta. Bird Of Passage finally closes this all-sorts selection box, with the near choral Birds Of Passage, framed by little other than some electric guitar that picks out as few notes as are necessary. And I can only apologise for yet another reference, but it smacks of the sort of last track showstopper so beloved of C,S,N,Y. As the girls stop singing and playing, birdsong is audible to the close.
Sorta struck dumb by the overall, the earlier question around how comes right back. This shows both scholarship knowledge of 20th into 21st century guitar music from the southern US, with enough mastery and compositional skill, more than enough, as to manifestly transcend the source material and find a totally new ground. I certainly hope this isn’t the end of the line; if nothing else, I have a personal error to make up for!
There isn’t yet anything more than 30 second teaser on youtube, so here’s a flashback, with the trio performing a familiar NY cover, as much to demonstrate how Greta manages to multi-task! (Even, if, by and large, not that demonstrative of the harder directions offered on this album.)