Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Jessica Lea Mayfield. Make My Head Sing...

Jessica Lea Mayfield.  Make My Head Sing…
ATO Records, 2014.  Jessica Lea Mayfield:  http://jessicaleamayfield.com/

I’ve read a few of the early reviews of Jessica Lea Mayfield’s new album.  Okay, so she’s changed her style a bit.  Less twang, more guitar feedback and distortion.  Some people have suggested (one presumes with disappointment or anger by Americana fans) that Mayfield has gone grunge.  Well, no, not exactly.  Clearly she has been influenced by that style, but she isn’t really imitating anybody.  She has dyed her hair pink, but the twang is still there, just a little less pronounced (check “I Wanna Love You”).  If you listen to some of her earlier stuff, the guitar was already there, just less up front and more acoustic.  This is a matter of proportion and perspective, and it seems like a positive direction.  These are strong songs, and I really like what she’s doing here.

Unlike her two earlier albums, one doesn’t hear the influence of Dan Auerbach or David Mayfield as much.  Perhaps Jesse Newport, her husband and producer on this third release, has a little to do with the changes, although I would hardly accuse Jessica Lea of being anybody’s clay to mold.  I see this album as a new direction that doesn’t leave the old stuff behind, but changes its character, melding at least three different styles together.  Certainly the guitar is bigger, bolder, and more dominant, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of hearing the lyrics, which I think a lot of grunge does.  Sometimes the guitar sounds more psychedelic, or even surf-like (check the end of “Seein Starz”).  The Americana/ bluegrass aspect of her music is still there, although somewhat muted, since it doesn’t always fit with the instrumentation.  But one thing I find fascinating is that her voice in many of the songs (“Standing in the Sun,” “Do I Have the Time,” “Seein Starz,” and others) sounds like some of the better singers in the genre of synthpop and alt rock, such as Frankie Rose, the Vivian Girls, and even Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura.  The overdubs of her voice make her sound like a group, and all these singers came to mind when I was listening.  Putting this kind of vocal overtop of the heavy guitar is fascinating, like having velvet glide over sandpaper. “Standing in the Sun” has less heavy guitar, and the effect is more pronounced here. I’ve listened to this track a lot.

The songs themselves are excellent, although my one complaint is the lack of lyrics in the insert (You have to go to the website for them).  Some would seem superficially drug-related (“Pure Stuff,” “Party Drugs”), but I’m not so sure that there aren’t multiple layers of meaning here.  I’m reading issues of independence, personal identity, and manipulation in relationships in many of the lyrics.  Maybe a little craziness too, in “I Wanna Love You” and “No Fun.”  Tell me if I’m off base here, since I never considered lyrical meaning my strong suit.  

This is a strong album and a powerful statement by Mayfield, with some unique characteristics that meld different musical styles together that you’d think shouldn’t work but do.  I love her voice.  The band is tight, but not overly so, and the whole effect is one of something quite different and delicious.  She’s off touring the country right now, but I’m sure she’ll be back in Northeast Ohio soon.

Personnel:  Jessica Lea Mayfield (baritone guitar, 12-string guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keys, lead and harmony vocals), Jesse Newport (bass, acoustic guitar, vibes), Matt Martin (drums, tambourine, shaker, vibes, casaba).  
Tracks:  Oblivious, I Wanna Love You, Standing in the Sun, Pure Stuff, Do I Have the Time, Party Drugs, Unknown Big Secret, Anything You Want, No Fun, Seein Starz.

Jeff Wanser

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