The Watson Twins—beautiful, raven-haired identical twin sisters Chandra and Leigh—are a marketer's dream. But, unfortunately, the big dream for the sisters from Kentucky (now longtime residents of Los Angeles) is not to sell scads of chewing gum or star as, say, spooky clairvoyants in the latest torture porn film. No, they are aiming for success in indie rock, a genre that has historically undervalued the Watson Twins' key skill and selling point: gorgeous, haunting harmonies.
Those locked-in smoky voices are what elevates 2008's criminally underappreciated Fire Songs (Vanguard) into a triumph. But it isn't hard to understand why the album didn't garner near the attention it deserved. The misnomer of a title didn't help matters. Fire Songs is the personification of low-key, a record that doesn't burn but smolders. Let it unspool in the background while you are tending to some chores and its power is revealed in due time.
The Watsons might have also been hindered by an association that lifted them into the public eye in the first place. Jenny Lewis, of indie-adored Rilo Kiley, tagged the Twins as backups for her first solo record, 2006's Rabbit Fur Coat. One of the few vocalists in indieland who doesn't need any assistance, Lewis is no dummy. She elevated the Watsons to title credit and used their photogenic presence on the CD cover.
Rabbit Fur Coat, which was widely praised, showcases Lewis' obsessions—it's mostly an acoustic/country-tinged affair about fame, religion and Lewis' mother. The Watson Twins don't have the vocabulary at the ready that Lewis has and, though Fire Songs has many virtues, lyrical prowess is not one of them. The songs Lewis writes and sings are at a remove and aimed at the head. The songs the Watson Twins sing are personal, messy and aimed right at the heart.
Of course, the Twins' cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" has received the most attention. The song is turned into a dusty dream—languid to the point of almost dissolving completely. But an acoustic guitar and harmonica waltz together in the background to keep the momentum going. The bouncy song you know from a million radio plays is turned inside out and transformed into the most slow-burning valentine imaginable.
Producers Russell Pollard and J. Soda keep changing up the sonic architecture on Fire Songs, but within a narrow blueprint that might be loosely defined as lounge rock. There's a south-of-the-border flavor complete with clicking castanets on "Map to Where You Are." There's clangy, expansive guitars that propel the intriguing "Sky Open Up." There's the comforting blues pop shuffle of "Old Ways." The tempos are slow, slower and slowest.
Yet, Fire Songs holds your interest in no small part because the Watson Twins articulate every syllable. They never call attention to their own accomplished voices, often sliding in and around the instrumentation. They register warehouses of ache and longing. The harmonies pull you in and hold you even as the words only occasionally rise above the cliché.
Maybe you could say that the scene is turning in favor of the twin sisters. The Watsons can fit comfortably in the company of new critical darlings Fleet Foxes. You might not like the Foxes' weirdo beardo vision, but they can certainly carry a tune. It wouldn't be surprising if indie rock and, most importantly, fans of indie rock began to tire of the haphazard and started clamoring for something like virtuosity—and not fake virtuosity as paraded every night on American Idol, but talent put toward the production of something genuine and honest. Something that sounds like the Watson Twins.
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