Puss N Boots | Sister | (Blue Note)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
The scarcity of recorded output from this on-again, but mostly off-again trio (Sister is only their second album since informally forming in 2008) shouldn’t be perceived as a lack of initiative. After all, singer/songwriters Sasha Dobson, Catherine Popper and especially Norah Jones all have active solo careers.
So look at this sophomore release as a gift of sorts. Like its predecessor, it’s a low key, moody, occasionally transcendent collection of originals and fairly obscure covers, sung by three women clearly in synch with each other as they move into a subtle, often gorgeous folk-pop arena.
At first, these 14 tracks seem a little too restrained and understated to make much of an impression. But repeated plays help define the music as the gorgeous, layered harmonies and refined if sparse instrumentation gets into your head and stays there. None of the threesome seem particularly proficient at their instruments (Jones’ drumming is primitive at best and her guitar playing is simple yet sweet), but that just lends another layer of charm to the proceedings.
The spare recording is open and clear, even if there is a sense these are pretty good demos that made the final cut based predominantly on the spontaneous, homespun and organic performances. Not surprisingly, Jones has the most recognizable vocals, but the pleasure of hearing all three women singing together either on parts or the entirety of each track is what helps make this such a cohesive set. There are wisps of country (“Lucky,” “Razor” both written by Popper), emotional singer/songwriter pop (“The Great Romancer”), some stripped down indie rock (“Nothing You Can Do”) and plenty of folk, in both the sound and mindset of these selections.
For better or worse, the most immediately impressive moments are covers from Tom Petty (an incandescent, heartbreaking reading of “Angel Dream” with Jones on lead vocals), Paul Westerberg (the incisive “It’s a Wonderful Lie” rescued from obscurity with Popper keeping the original male oriented lyrics) and Dolly Parton (“The Grass is Blue” is one of the Nashville icon’s finest if least known lyrical compositions, performed here with a naturally nuanced touch by all three voices trading on the chorus with Jones’ lead).
The largely ballad program keeps the flame on low boil which is where these women feel most comfortable. Originals such as Dobson’s “Nothing You Can Do” feel like Neil Young B-sides from his After the Gold Rush era and the title track, one of three co-written by the trio, has a soothing retro 60s feel with a reserved surf twang.
Don’t let the loose, familial vibe dissuade you from appreciating the allure of this lovely side-project. Rather it’s that sense you’re a fly on the wall peering in as Dobson, Jones and Popper hang out that makes the appropriately titled Sister such a successful and inviting listen. It’s perfect for Sunday mornings with that third cup of coffee or anytime else you’d like to invite these three talented women into your living room for an intimate, superbly expressive performance.