Jessica Lea Mayfield – [Album]

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Having first encountered Jessica Lea Mayfield haunting Dan Auerbach on the chorus of the Black Keys' “Things Ain't Like They Used To Be,” this second full length might have listened like a victory lap for Auerbach, who handles production on Tell Me. His own band finally came into their own on their most recent effort Brothers (if it took them six albums to get there, well, blues traditionalists have a lot of road to hoe before they need to chase their own muse) and Mayfield's demos were given a charitable hoist by Auerbach himself when he manned the reins on her debut long player. Yet, this showstopper of a sophomore effort finds the producer favorably irradiated by the grace of Mayfield's presence, hardly vice versa.

With her voice surprisingly rougher (read: endearingly flat) around the edges than the Beth Orton-isms that marked With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, Mayfield subtly steps into a spotlight of her own configuring. She's abandoned the slight affectations that may have been an attempt to out-sing the youth in her larynx. As a result, she sounds more comfortable in her already strong songwriting; giving this follow-up record a more distinct personality that can be readily identified as her own. Dodgy fashion choice aside, the septum ring that Mayfield sports in her press photos is no less indicative that her sound lies squarely in the present than the overall tone of Tell Me. Eschewing any Janie-come-lately retro trappings, Mayfield writes songs rooted in country music as if the last ninety years never happened. She throws “Blue Skies Again” a massive pop-rock bone (just pay that bass line a second's mind), slathers “Grown Man” with unabashed synth work, and sets the title track to a sharply percussive Sam Cooke homage. This is the work of someone almost certainly born into the most recent generation, but with the ear of someone learned and talented beyond their years.

Even when Tell Me threatens to run dry, the mood these songs establish keeps the proceedings from sounding stale. Her melodies grow ominous long before they can grow tiresome and that disquiets even the prettiest moments on the record, including “Run Myself Into The Ground.” Mayfield colors these tunes in with lyrics that are mired in shame, but apologize for nothing. On “Sometimes At Night” she sings, “I did not ask to be born with these eyes/Eyes that always speak for my mind,” while staring right through both the narrative's cabana boy she left nursing a hard on and the stranger she let cop a feel.

As this review goes to publication, Mayfield is wrapping up a run of dates with Justin Townes Earle, a fellow old soul more than adept at a good foxtrot with the familial bones George Bernard Shaw once spoke of. Mayfield has roots in her own natural good-time family band, but her songs profess the knowledge that in the end we're all, as Lucinda Williams eloquently put it, “so fuckin' alone.” In “Our Hearts Are Wrong,” when she intones, “You're intimidating as all hell/But I ain't scared of you,” there's more than a good chance she's speaking directly to herself.



Tell Me is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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