It takes moxie to call your album Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul. All those short, succinct words, a growing snowball of open-ended associations hurtling down the slope. Yet it suits the third full-length from Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter perfectly. Because even more so than its predecessors, Reckless Burning (2002) and Oh, My Girl (2004), this 12-song set feels like an exercise in quantum physics or stage magic; how so much content can fit in such small spaces is a wonder.
"These songs have a little more of a pop song structure than a lot of the older ones, which were a little more pastoral and ambiguous," remarks Jesse Sykes. "Those songs have a real beauty, too, and I love them. But these ones, when you take away some of the bells and whistles, they still hold together as songs."
When Sykes calls her work pop, she is referring primarily to architecture, not the building materials. Take the song "You Might Walk Away," with its simple verse-chorus, verse-chorus construction. "That, to me, is a pop song. The only difference is that the lyrics aren't about a walk in the sun on the beach. It's more about the corrosion of the human heart." Sykes's definition of a "pop song" has about as much in common with MTV fare as Larry Clark's Kids does with a "teen comedy."
The Seattle band haven't ditched their distinctive arrangements, far from it. Like a good Neptunes production, if you break these cuts down to their core components, the songs seem even stranger. "The Air Is Thin" starts small, then swells to accommodate mariachi brass and a majestic massed chorus. Even a spare number like the opener, "Eisenhower Moon," with its base timbres of harmonica and acoustic guitar, can suddenly change pallor with the introduction of a swath of ethereal backing vocals.
Yet the most impressive thing about the Sweet Hereafter is how the players reconcile the increasingly concise sensibility of Sykes's songs with a love for the endangered species called the guitar solo. "Hard Not to Believe" twists around a measured, six-syllable lyrical peg and a spindly melody. Suddenly, like a boat emerging from a narrow tributary into the open sea, it gives way to a virtuoso turn by guitarist Phil Wandscher.
"I'm kind of a classic-rock freak," he admits. Lately, he's been spending a lot of time with Live at the Fillmore East, the 2006 collection of 1970 concert recordings by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. "I just love all that shit. Nowadays, everybody is so afraid to put a guitar solo in a song, or just jam and rock out."
"Dungen ain't afraid of it," Jesse interjects.
For that matter, neither is she. "I consider his solos like songs within songs, countermelodies," Sykes continues. (Wandscher is credited as cowriter on four tracks.) "They aren't just solos for the sake of soloing, they actually go somewhere. And they are pretty intricate arrangements. I've always had to throw away the notion that something is going to just be a three-minute pop song, because Phil's side of the story definitely has to be told."
"The solos were worked out, but there's a lot of improvisation, too," adds bassist Bill Herzog. "I played parts that I've never played since. A lot of stuff is spontaneous."
Surprisingly, so are the backing vocals. Sykes expresses wonder that her bandmates toss off flourishes like the Beach Boys–style coda of "How Will We Know?" "They have to make their voices sound almost like characters... these strange, angelic creatures who have to blend with my voice, which change throughout the record."
That vocal balance has altered of late, too. Longtime string player Anne Marie Ruljancich recently departed. Fortunately, new drummer Eric Eagle is blessed with good pipes, filling any holes in the choir. But the smaller lineup still feels a bit odd to the remaining players. "It's fun to be at a new level—we have definitely progressed and gotten better—yet be a smaller band than we were two years ago. But it's kind of cool, too," says Herzog. And it seems to fit the mood of the times. Now, more than ever, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter are making listeners feel more, while playing less.