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Album reviews: Jessica Lea Mayfield's 'Tell Me' and Anna Waronker's 'California Fade'

February 8, 2011 |  7:54 am


Feminine reticence is a deeply embedded trait. Women songwriters in the rock era have used it strategically. Freedom is linked to noise, the earthy squalls of Janis and Aretha or the riot grrrls’ indignant hollering. Yet quieter voices can get to the heart of many predicaments women face, precisely because they embody those binds: the challenge of asserting oneself in a father-dominated family or a social guy zone; the persistent worry that raising your voice might mark you as overly needy, crass or just too big.

Two new releases from women sure of their quiet voices reflect that predicament. Jessica Lea Mayfield is only 21, but she’s been performing for years as part of a family bluegrass band, and “Tell Me” is her second solo album. Working with her producer, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Mayfield has developed a sound that’s coy and plain-spoken, a fascinating take on the demure female singer, especially as that role has unfolded within Mayfield’s chosen home base of Americana. Her cool connects her to Patsy Cline; her haunted side recalls Gillian Welch. She also has a bit of the shambolic indie rocker in her, sometimes even sounding like a female J. Mascis.

Mayfield’s slim soprano relies on a sly drawl that makes you wonder if she might be teasing you, and her lyrics are frank and poetic, the confessions of a young heart learning how to contain itself. “Where did my … self … control … go?” she breathes ever so carefully in “Run Myself Into the Ground,” as Auerbach’s mix of spacey electronics and vintage tremolo guitar form shadows behind her. Mayfield’s internal debate about whether self-control is something worth preserving is her most interesting subject, a deeply relevant counterpoint to the exhibitionistic tendencies of so many young performers.

Anna Waronker has been asking similar questions in music since the 1990s, when her band That Dog found modest alt-rock success. The daughter of venerable record producer-exec Lenny Waronker, Anna makes highly self-aware SoCal pop that often recalls post-punk girl bands like the Go-Gos as well as early Carole King. (Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey is her sister-in-law, and the two co-wrote the rock musical “Lovelace.”) Her sound is exquisitely designed to push at its own seams — emotional songcraft shaped by a woman used to finding her spot within a dude-dominated world.

“California Fade,” which Waronker made with help from her tight circle of friends — including Foo Fighter Pat Smear and Waronker’s husband, Steve McDonald of Redd Kross — is a clear-headed and infinitely tender assessment of life as a married woman, a key player among family and friends, and a sometimes hesitant yet determined artistic self-starter. In other words, it’s the story of a woman’s life.

“The road is long, the road is tough; I didn’t think I’d have to work this hard,” sings Waronker in “How Am I Doing?,” one of several songs here that confront what time does to a person’s sense of self. Her vocal phrasing is fastidious and direct; it sounds like she’s trying to figure things out, translating buried feelings as she uncovers them. She holds back not to be manipulative, but the way one does in the middle of an argument with a loved one: She’s composing herself. It’s a show of artfulness that’s not only feminine, but which women listeners will instantly recognize.

—Ann Powers

Jessica Lea Mayfield
“Tell Me”
Three stars (Out of four)

Anna Waronker
“California Fade”
Three and a half stars (Out of four)