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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1279

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The Dear Janes: Skirt
by George Graham

(Sore Thumb Records STR-CD1 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/24/2002)

With the notable exception of Indigo Girls, there are relatively few female singer-songwriter duos or groups, and of those, most are sibling teams, such as the McGarrigle or Roche Sisters. This week we have the latest recording by a British-based duo called the Dear Janes, entitled Skirt.

Barbara Marsh and Ginny Clee are a seemingly unlikely pair. Ms. Marsh is American while Ms. Clee was born and raised in the UK. Both were daughters of military families who were frequently transferred about. Ms. Marsh's father had a ukulele while stationed in Hawaii, and she started on that instrument before taking up the guitar. Ms. Clee grew up singing with her family. They met in 1992, after Ms. Clee had almost given up performing. She was drawn to Ms. Marsh's literate and often evocative lyrics, and the two decided to collaborate, though sometimes their writing sessions were a bit rocky, according to one biography. Nevertheless, they recorded an independent release in 1994 called Sometimes I, then three years later, in 1997 released No Skin recorded at Peter Gabriel's studio, which gained major-label US distribution, and attracted some attention and critical praise.

Now they are out with another independent, self-financed recording, and Skirt, which though perhaps not quite as eclectic as No Skin is a very worthwhile CD that again highlights the duo's intriguing writing and distinctive vocal harmonies. What the CD might lose from the wide-ranging stylistic excursions of its predecessor, it gains in a more confident, focussed sound that still manages to defy easy categorization.

The album was co-produced by Simon Edwards who has worked with the likes of Billy Bragg, and appeared on the Dear Janes' first album. As an interesting side note, Ms. Clee proposed marriage to Edwards in the liner notes to No Skin, and he accepted. Also serving as co-producer is Howard Hughes, another British producer who has worked with Peter Murphy among others. Clee and Marsh play most of the guitars themselves. Backing musicians include Edwards on bass, drummers Roy Dodds and Martyn Baker, steel guitarist BJ Cole, and keyboard man Ian McLagan, who had been part of the Faces with Rod Stewart and also was in Bonnie Raitt's band.

As on their last album, the Dear Janes' songs often take on a brooding mood, while lyrically, most are about personal relationships in various states, from a hot love affair to a call for good riddance. Their wordcraft is a particular strength. And while there is a kind of underlying folkiness to their music, the Dear Janes are not afraid to bring in more wide-ranging influences, including bits from the now oxymoronically-named "alternative" rock world, but fortunately avoiding most of the clichés of the latter.

The Dear Janes' vocal style borrows from the English folk scene, with the two evoking the dusky alto of artists like Sandy Denny, though this time, they move into a higher register a bit more often, when the higher of the two singers takes the lead.

The CD opens with Drunk on Hallelujahs one of the more intriguing songs, with Dear Janes' typically great turns of phrase, accompanied by an almost somber musical setting. <<>>

Rise and Shine is another good piece of writing which provides an interesting perspective on the morning after the night before. <<>>

Ship is a song co-written by the Dear Janes with Syd Straw, who performed it at a large benefit concert. The Dear Janes' version brings together an interesting mix of influences from old-time folk banjo to spacey atmospherics. <<>> The song breaks into big chorus ending with backing vocalists including Billy Bragg. <<>>

One of my favorite tracks on Skirt is The Fix. It's probably the most positive love song on the album, and in musical texture it evokes the introspective sound of Nick Drake. <<>>

Showing their rocky side is Too Much Girl. The song is quite the opposite of The Fix in both musical mood and lyrical direction. I don't think the somewhat punky arrangement fits the duo very well, though again, it is a song that has something to say. <<>>

Also a standout is Skinning. It's an unsettling piece that takes the sequenced rhythms of commercial lightweight pop and puts them into the context of a brooding lyrics that seem to seek a kind of emotional exorcism. <<>>

The album ends with Crack My Heart that hews toward the folky side with its consideration of an apparently fractured affair. <<>>

Ginny Clee and Barbara Marsh have been together as the Dear Janes for a full decade now. On their new third release Skirt, they have shown their artistic growth with a somewhat sharper musical focus, more astute use of their vocal harmonies and some of the best lyrics they have written, even though the subject matter has been explored by countless others before. They come up with songs that range from wistful to sardonic, with accompaniment running from banjo to techno drum loops. Like their last album, it's difficult to categorize, outside of the broad realm of the singer-songwriter. It's music to think about in more ways than one.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The duo and friends recorded the album in an old Sunday school in London, where they set up their own equipment. The results are generally satisfying, though there are a few minor flaws, and the occasional low-fi sonic intrusions from the alternative rock scene. The dynamic range is respectable, though not quite at an audiophile level.

Skirt is being distributed by the Dear Janes themselves, so it may be a little hard to find, but it is worth seeking out for the music of this relatively rare English female singer-songwriter duo whose literate and eclectic songs will stay with you for a long time.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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