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Apocalyptic Blues

The Sterling Sisters
Hale Review.Stream.Fullset

What makes a song ring true or false?  For that matter, what makes any fiction work?  Writers have to inhabit the souls of all manner of people, but if all they could express was themselves, every novel would be about the struggles of maintaining access to wi-fi.  Folk music runs into this problem more than most, as its themes, pastoralism and working-class solidarity and a general aspect of blue-collar-ness, often stand distant from the musicians singing about them.  Perhaps that is why so much of it scans as inauthentic; after all, what does a Brooklyn-bound hipster know about Appalachia, about rural poverty?  Probably little or nothing at all.

The Sterling Sisters overcomes this barrier not with nuance but dynamite.  Hale sounds like a Spaghetti Western; wide-open plains and three-way shootouts and clipped, iconic dialogue.  There’s the jumpy bass of early Uncle Tupelo, surf-rock guitars, and furiously strummed banjo, mosh pit-worthy as anything else today.  In other words, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.


Though playing in a frequently-joyless style, by merit of exaggeration the band brings a manic energy even when humming along.  Vocalists George Cessna and Scout Paré-Phillips trade off – he thin and reedy, she operatic and somersaulting with the approximate tenor of a singing-saw when she really gets going.  They don’t harmonize so much as ricochet off one another, building a furious kinesis.  Too often this style can be pretty without weight, but the band smashes both and puts joy and vigor in their place.

This is not to insult the group’s songwriting, however, only pointing toward its end.  To hell with the dour; this is a celebration!  Folk and country were popularized as dance programs broadcast by radio and so plowed along at a good clip, at whatever rate was necessary.  (A word to the wise: never wear a sweater to a square dance.) Thus Hale swings and caterwauls and feels decidedly lo-fi, reverb hanging in the distance and drums muffled, up-close.

As compared with many of their neo-folk contemporaries, the band focuses little on themes of nature or modernism, speaking instead of love, death, and the omnipresent west.  Even at their most esoteric the lyrics still tread relatable and well-worn ground.  The tropes are familiar, but blown out to new ends.  Take that too for Hale as an album and Sterling Sisters as a band: things that ring true by merit of their extremity, even absurdity.  That, of course, is a great thing.




  1. Sérgio Mota

    January 14, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    this is complete ripoff of Munly & The Lee Lewis, but that’s ok, they’re good just the same

  2. Alistair Evans

    January 14, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    A tremendous album from start to finish. It’s epic in scope and haunting in tone. Scout’s voice on the title song is like a true successor to a lost Sergio Leone classic. They both trade off well with each other. Another aspect I liked was the bass sound (opting for a guitar over a stand up which is the usual choice for country music), and sounding like some early 80’s post punk mixed with underground country. Although nothing alike musically it reminded me in their bravado approach of another classic debut from Brooklyn, Motherhead Bug ‘Zambodia’. Unlike Motherhead Bug I sincerely hope they make more than one album but for now Hale stand proudly in my Top 10 of 2013.

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