JESSE SYKES & THE SWEET HEREAFTER with SPARKLEHORSE at the Mod Club (722 College), Friday (February 23). $21. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
From even the most optimistic perspective, Jesse Sykes's tour is off to a totally crappy start.
Since early February, when the Seattle-based noir-country crooner hit the road with her Sweet Hereafter band opening for Sparklehorse, they've encountered nothing but worst-case scenarios.
First her trusty van broke down midway through the Midwest. It died on February 13, which meant decent vehicles were already booked by lovebirds embarking on Valentine getaways. Sykes and her buds were stuck trying to cram all their gear into two tiny cars in the hopes of making it to their Seattle homecoming gig.
Then a tiny bump in the singer/songwriter's mouth flared up into a brutal abscess that, according to the doctor who treated her, was on the verge of turning into a virulent full-body infection. It's enough to make anyone wanna call it a day.
But bizarrely, Sykes is having the time of her life. While her unflagging positivity may have some correlation with the hardcore painkillers prescribed for that abscess, you get the sense that despite the haunted quality of her music, Sykes is committed to a glass-half-full mentality.
"I'm in my 30s, and I think cynicism isn't really attractive after a certain age," she explains in her hickory-smoked drawl. "It's not like in your 20s, when you're supposed to have a flippant response to everything. That's not to say I don't have my own ways of being sardonic, but I don't want that to be the message I put out to the world.
"Y'know, even good reviews say my album has a pretentious title," she continues, alluding to her new Like, Love, Lust & The Open Halls Of The Soul (Barsuk) album. "I wanted the name to sound like an old movie, but I think I'm also subconsciously flipping the bird to people who don't get a lack of cynicism. What? Should I have a fuckin' Norah Jones-style title that doesn't say anything? I think music should be more complex."
All brushed drums, spooky keys and atmospheric washes of guitar (courtesy of Sykes's partner, Phil Wandscher), Like, Love, Lust is uniformly darker and, at times, brutally heavier than Sykes's superlative Oh, My Girl (Barsuk) disc, released in 04.
Sykes doesn't tread lightly around intense emotions on disc. From the first line of opener Eisenhower Moon, when she asks, "Is this still a good place to be?" with quavering uncertainty, to the sombre lullaby of resignation that closes the album, her brooding tunes are like a giant bloodied heart pinned, unguarded, to her sleeve.
Though she admits it was "very difficult" to make, Sykes insists the album's intensity doesn't just stem from her own emotional catharsis. Listen closely and you'll start to pick up on references that ground her songs in a larger political and social context.
"Obviously I don't write activist songs, but... the political climate of your culture has a lot to do with the emotional temperature of the work you're creating."
The unexpectedly bouncy I Like The Sound, for instance, frames oblique references to the execution of ex-Crip Tookie Williams in a psych-rock swagger reminiscent of Woodstock-era anti-establishment anthems. Eisenhower Moon, Sykes offers, is a multivalent homage to a dead president's lunar program, an acknowledgment of the residual effects of bygone eras and a starry-eyed nod to the forever-and-ever archetype of the moon... among other things.
Delivered by a more mediocre singer, the wide-eyed sentiments on Like, Love, Lust might come off as trite or sentimental. But Sykes's curiously otherworldly, furry-edged moan adds a creepy gravity that drives her songs home.
That inimitable vocal style, while admittedly not to all tastes, is something that resonated with Southern Lord art-metal bashers Boris and Sunn O)), who recruited Sykes to sing on their recent Altar collabo.
Understandably, Sykes says she thought her Seattle-based rocker pals were joking - who the fuck would think of adding alt-country crooning to a hardcore freakout? - pretty much till they brought her into the studio.
The oddest result? Southern Lord metal aficionados have started showing up at Sweet Hereafter gigs.
"In Denver last night, a group of guys yelled out 'Sinking Bells,' which is the title of that track," Sykes laughs. "And they actually bought our record after the set! Those guys would've definitely overlooked us in the past, but since Altar I think they've started getting into the darkness and emotional intensity of our songs."
What's most interesting about Sykes's roughened vocals, especially compared to many of her haunted-girl peers (think Jolie Holland or Chan Marshall) is that she pulls off an eerie androgynous quality closer to Neil Young than to any of the women to whom she's frequently compared.
"I'm very pro-woman, but it's sad that as a female singer, people always assume that all your influences are women. I have a few obvious ones, like Janis Joplin and some obscure blues singers, but I'm not into a lot of girl indie rock singers, cuz I hate squeaky female vocals that sound like cheerleaders. I like women who sing like women.
"Neil Young's Tonight's The Night is my all-time favourite album cuz I love that rawness so much. He was going through so much pain because his friends had both died, and you can hear the desperation in his voice. I guess that's what I look for, singing as though your life depends on it."
Additional Audio Interview Clips
How politics inform the songs on Like, Love, Lust ...
Sykes explains the major theme/journey of the album; "hope with the realization of reality"
Sykes on major influences behind the album's mood, and why she doesn't know if she succeeded.
Sykes on the cover art/aesthetic
Sykes on "retro"; why she thinks everyone's just trying to look like they're making records from the 60s and 70's
Music from Jesse Sykes