Jessica Lea Mayfield: Make My Head Sing …

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“Make My Head Sing…”
Jessica Lea Mayfield
ATO Records
Three stars

It’s inspiring to hear Jessica Lea Mayfield, on her third album, continuing to push beyond her previous “moody alt-rock singer-songwriter” label. The Kent, Ohio, native is now the front-woman of a sludgy, buzzy, deep-bottomed rock power trio – as much Blue Cheer as Nirvana. She’s come up with an exciting sound but her voice, softly introspective with a touch of resignation, sometimes gets swamped by the loudness. On 2011’s fine Tell Me, her last album, producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys had used an electric guitarist on her records in an exciting way. But he had her concentrate on upfront singing (and acoustic guitar). Now with husband Jesse Newport on bass (and co-producing with her) and Matt Martin on drums, Mayfield provides all the dominant guitar work as well as all the vocals. She wrote all the songs.

The chords of opener “Oblivious” squeal out like “Smoke on the Water”; the urgent yet sad chiming riffs on “I Wanna Love You” recall “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” The music demands you notice it, but sometimes to the detriment of the voice. Fortunately, Mayfield knows when a lyric or melody calls for voice over guitar. On the standout “Party Drugs,” a solitary electric guitar traces out a tentative path for singer Mayfield, fatigued but wise from an ordeal, to let us know she “won’t die in this hotel room.” The song has a bluesy, minimalist, hard-lesson-learned quality. You can hear the traces of a country twang (she used to perform in her family’s bluegrass band) in “No Fun,” and the voice’s fragility has a dreamy dimension in “Seein’ Starz,” like Cat Power’s “Manhattan.” “Standing in the Sun” is densely textured folk-rock-pop that is simultaneously shadowy and bright. Her layered vocals have a cumulative chorale power. Mayfield is experimenting – a sign of growth. What she’s come up with isn’t always completely successful, but it keeps you wanting more.

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