Same difference: The Watson Twins get louder, livelier on 'Talking to You'
The Watson Twins have always been about creating a mood. Skilled in the art of the harmony, the Los Angeles-based duo have specialized in a more meditative brand of Southern soul, one in which their two voices have been locked in a back-porch slow-dance. With the release last week of "Talking to You, Talking to Me," the identical siblings have started to shift their focus to the groove.
Still best known for their pairing with Jenny Lewis on her 2006 effort "Rabbit Fur Coat," Chandra and Leigh Watson have steadily gone from backing artists to leading women, releasing now two full-length albums under their own name. The act's last was a quiet affair, and with limited exceptions, 2008's "Fire Songs" was about the close vocal shadowing of unhurried acoustic arrangements.
From the outset, "Talking to You" has different goals. Its opening track "Modern Man" launches in a rhythmic trot. With electric guitars that trail and haunt the beat rather than lead it, the Watson Twins recall Linda Ronstadt, opening with a timeless pop sound that carries on the Laurel Canyon tradition.
"Leigh and I knew we wanted to make a record that really relied on the rhythm section," Chandra told Pop & Hiss last week. "We really dug into the drums and the bass, and that was the focus of each tune. I feel like the record has two sides. There’s an upbeat, indie-pop kind of sound, and then there’s a soul, R&B side of the record. What we hope ties them together is that they all rely heavily on the rhythm section."
Like the stylistic leaps the twins' pal Lewis took on 2008's "Acid Tongue," the Watson Twins show off the more lively aspects of their influences on "Talking to You." Parts of the new album, such as "Harpeth River" and "Midnight," have a bluesy cabaret feel. Elsewhere, "U-N-Me" and "Savin' You" capture a more classic rock sound, the latter with a brisk, rootsy symphony that would make Jeff Lynne proud.
The upbeat vibe, said Chandra, was formed, in part, on tour. Although the Watson Twins typically play for an appreciative adult audience, the act has had its share of impatient crowds as well.
"Spending a couple years on the road, we were able to feel what felt really good live," Chandra said. "We’ve been lucky to open for a lot of great people. When you’re playing those songs in front of M. Ward’s audience, they’re with you every step of the way. But when you’re playing that for 15-year-old, 16-year-old kids at a Ben Kweller show, they may not get that."
The Watson Twins recorded again with local collaborators and L.A. scene vets J. Soda and Russell Pollard, who play in Everest. The latter band will be backing the Watson Twins on Wednesday night at the Bootleg Theater, and helped the duo flesh out many of the songs on "Talking to You."
Chandra and Leigh write separately, and work began on "Talking to You" when each sister had written about 10 songs. "It's intense," Chandra said, when asked about the process of editing, pruning and rejecting a sibling's song.
"We did way more evaluating on this record," Chandra said. "In the past, I think we’ve allowed ourselves to just take the songs for what they were and run with it. But that’s a sign of naiveté. You think as a songwriter, ‘This is how I wrote it. It’s honest and real, so it should be recorded that way.’ Yet you eventually realize that your first thought isn’t always the best thought. We rolled up our sleeves and dug in. We had to not allow our emotions to drive the choices."
And when in doubt, some well-connected friends helped make the decisions easier. "Devil in You," for instance, features a standout keyboard melody from Bo Koster, better known for his work in Americana outfit My Morning Jacket. The song starts with a foreboding stomp, but the keyboard flourishes during the chorus strike a more playful, saloon-type atmosphere.
"It’s grittier than our earlier stuff," Chandra said of the song. "It a little more soulful, and a little more raw."Now all that's left is to add some whimsy to the live show. Asked if there was anything special planned for Wednesday's album release concert, Chandra joked, "I’m doing all my songs from a trapeze."
Photo : The Watson Twins. Credit: Dan Monick