Like orchids blooming in the swamp, the Secret Sisters embody beauty amid harshness.
Eschewing digital gloss and cheap sexuality for analog skill and aching romanticism, Muscle Shoals, Ala. natives Laura and Lydia Rogers make music with echoes of the past — everyone from the Everly Brothers and Kitty Wells to Simon & Garfunkel and Emmylou Harris lingers in the background like shadows — that enriches the present day.
Put Your Needle Down, the much anticipated follow-up to the siblings’ wonderful, self-titled 2010 debut, is again produced by Fort Worth-bred sonic wizard T Bone Burnett, who served as shepherd and artistic North Star on the sisters’ first outing.
But where The Secret Sisters was, by and large, a sunny, arresting affair, Put Your Needle Down allows storm clouds to gather, enriching the sisters’ deeper, darker voices and frequently grim subject matter found here to dramatically expand the duo’s sonic scope.
Wisely, Down isn’t a full-scale recalibration, but finds the Rogers sisters embracing a more sinister aesthetic at the right time, as like-minded singer-songwriters such as Brandy Clark, Sarah Jarosz and Kacey Musgraves are attracting more attention as an antidote to Nashville’s current fixation on apple-cheeked, anodyne anthems.
“A noose up in the maple tree/The old man’s gonna pay/Two headstones for two lovers who finally got away,” Laura and Lydia intone in unison near the end of the sinister, shuffling murder ballad Iuka, one of several ice-cold lyrics found scattered throughout Put Your Needle Down.
Indeed, such a scene isn’t the only chilling moment here: “I’m living on a lonely island/In a loveless ocean/Full of misery,” sing the Rogers sisters in soaring tandem, on Lonely Island, conjuring a horror of an altogether different sort.
The sisters, who wrote or co-wrote each of the dozen songs here, don’t shy away from up-tempo tunes — although, in fairness, even what’s ostensibly the most upbeat track here, the effervescent Black and Blue, equates a lover’s indecision with bruises — but the bulk of the darkly beautiful Down sustains a hypnotic mood, highlighted by the sisters’ willingness to use their gorgeous harmonies in service of gritty material and swampy textures, aided by Burnett’s signature blend of blues, folk, country and rock elements.
As the Secret Sisters demonstrate throughout Put Your Needle Down, sometimes, it’s good to be bad.