by Kate Conner-Ruben
Just when you've decided to put away the tragic mantle of youth, along comes someone like Jesse Sykes to make you feel ashamed of being cheerful. This Seattle-based folksinger puts the "oo" in brooding, via gorgeous, dismal, atmospheric songs that are either mysterious or confusing, depending on your mood. And in a last-minute coup for local music booker Chad Williams, Sykes and her band, the Sweet Hereafter, are taking time out of a busy national and international tour schedule to play a free show at the Old Town on Wednesday, May 28.
A copy of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter's new CD, Reckless Burning, made its way to my desk, and I found myself playing it a lot at work, in the car, and late, late at night as I stood in an empty room staring at the way the moon illuminates the cracks, the empty picture frames . . . no, not really, not that last bit. Dark as it is, this is truly an interesting collection of songs with a tentative and enduring muscle. It gets under your skin (in the manner of muscle) after the first listen. Sykes's tremulous, heady voice silks its way lazily through her cunning melodies. This is a gentle ride through a strange terrain dotted with symbols, signs, and soaring harmonies.
The title track sets the tone slow, intense, slightly obsessive, and, at almost seven minutes, the longest on the album. For some reason the second song, "Doralee," is my favorite. It's as minor as they come, rendered creepy and inscrutable by a ringing guitar and an ominous, plunkety banjo. Lyricwise, I have absolutely no idea what's going on here. Check it out:
| Doralee, there's water in the basement |
Saturday you'll be sleeping in a tree
Gone are the weeds that you tended to like children
Gone are the days and the distance between.
Whuh? Thing is, these
images (and there are quite a few more like this), when coupled with the music and Sykes's simple, almost matter-of-fact vocal mixed dry and way up front become almost undeniable.
"Don't Let Me Go" is about as up-tempo as Sykes and her colleagues get here. It's a dreamscape barroom plaint in which the last "go" of the title line is held through three beautiful chord changes. It's got drums, a sweet and sexy boom-chick, way off in the distance.
This album really made me want to play the "Meets The" game, so I will. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter is Cowboy Junkies meets Hugo Largo (anyone remember them?) meets (well, sort of glances at) Freakwater. That's the best I can do. Others have called it "twang noir" an apt moniker, for which I wish I could claim credit. See what you think.
Sykes's show at the Old Town is sure to be packed. Prepare to be meaningfully sad.
[Originally published in May, 2003.]