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The Watson Twins - Talking To You, Talking To Me 5/10
on February 16, 2010
Identical sisters Chandra and Leigh Watson have always been more noteworthy for the things they've done behind the spotlight rather in front of it. Members of the Silver Lake, CA scene that has spawned such acts as Rilo Kiley, Sea Wolf, and Eels, the Watson Twins' biggest impact in the music world was as the backing vocalists to Jenny Lewis' superb solo record, Rabbit Fur Coat. Their solo work, particularly 2008's Fire Songs, has been marked mainly by a disturbing lack of any definable identity. Enlisting fellow Silver Lake artists Russell Pollard and J. Soda of Everest to help produce their latest might not have been the most refreshing idea in retrospect, as Talking to You, Talking To Me is essentially what the Twins have been doing for over a decade, but for some at first indiscernible reasons it's a much more fully-realized, capable record than its predecessors.
The most readily apparent cause is the Twins' themselves; whereas earlier efforts found each sister sharing the mic on each song, Talking To You, Talking To Me mainly focuses one song on one sister at a time, with the other primarily handing backup duties for the duration of the track. It's a smart move that pays off by not confusing the listener and by allowing each tune to have its own focus, a linear narrative thread not broken up by call-and-response verses. More importantly, however, and something that becomes increasingly obvious as the record continues, is the improved instrumentation and backing music. Too often before in the Twins' discography the vocals were an album's highlights, adorned with only the barest piano and guitar or the occasional woodwind. Chandra and Leigh have smoky, sensual voices to be sure, voices that can more than easily hold and direct a song, but they have always worked best in a supportive framework, like on the multiple textures of Rabbit Fur Coat. The lesson has evidently been learned; the best part about the record is its sonic depth, from the soft, breezy torch ballad "Snow Canyons" to the rippling guitar and organ solos on "Midnight" to the faux trip-hop of the bubbling, syncopated "Harpeth River."
Unfortunately, there's only so many ways one can make a mid-tempo indie folk tune or `60s girl-group ballad sound, and Chandra and Leigh's insistence on maintaining practically the same tone and mood whether they're lamenting a lost lover or proclaiming their undying affection is the album's biggest downfall. To be brutally honest, they have always lacked the charisma (not to mention a particularly arresting voice) of a Jenny Lewis or a Zooey Deschanel, and Pollard and Soda are certainly not the muse that M. Ward or Blake Sennett have been. For all the surprises that a track like "Harpeth River" brings or for all the many ear-pleasing harmonies and foot-stomping melodies that vintage anthems like "Devil In You" and "Savin' You" deliver, there's boring, by-the-numbers alt-country like "Calling Out" or "Give Me A Chance." One can only listen to so many slow, jazz-inflected rhythms and passionless lyrics before getting frustrated with the overall sameness of too many of the performances here.
Then again, the Watson Twins will never have the vocal firepower of a Jenny Lewis or a Beth Hart, but they use what they were born with to often haunting, always charming effect, even when things may drag. Talking To You, Talking To Me is an entirely predictable indie folk record, one that has just as many flaws as it has ethereally precious moments, but it does show a progression for the Twins and an improving knowledge on how to translate their talents onto a whole LP.