Oh, My Girl, the second album by singer/songwriter Jesse Sykes and her band the Sweet Hereafter – led by Phil Wandscher – picks up where her debut, Reckless Burning, left off. Songs are played at cough-syrup tempo, production is sparse, instrumentation equally so, offering just enough of a frame for the melody and lyrics to hang themselves on, and everything, absolutely everything, is underplayed. There is plenty of dynamic tension, but little to no dynamic range. Yes, this is a good thing. Sykes' ghostly voice, which hovers about her words more than inhabits them, has enough old-world folkiness, raw – if intentionally muted – willingness, and lonesome country pain in it to carry off these tunes with authority. Produced, mixed and engineered by multi-instrumentalist Tucker Martine, Oh, My Girl is full of slow, dipping passion, moody expressionism and poetic smarts to make it stand out in a sensual, narcotic way from the rest of the gothic alterna-twang pack. And one more thing: Sykes has more emotion in the grain of her halting, cracking voice than a whole army of Margo Timmins'es – so let the comparisons stop now, please.
One of the best songwriters of the 1960s and early '70s, with an unassuming style that managed to sound like Fred Neil, J.J. Cale, Jim Croce, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and early Tom Waits by turns (and sometimes all at once), Jesse Winchester would have been as well known and regarded as any of these had history not swept him from Louisiana, where he was born, to Montreal, Canada, where he took up residence in exile (like thousands of other young men at the time) to avoid the Vietnam War. Winchester was working gigs as a lounge pianist when his draft notice came, and while he joined a couple of local bands after his flight to Canada, his life as a musician had been torn apart.
Taking what talents they've garnered from previous bands such as Hominy and Whiskeytown, lead singer Jesse Sykes and guitarist Phil Wandscher are onto something far bigger than the two could have foreseen. The opening title track lends itself as much to Margo Timmins as it does to a latter-day Lucinda Williams à la "Lonely Girls" in its almost morose tempo and arrangements, making the nearly seven-minute song glide along effortlessly and, to the listener, far shorter. The following numbers offer the same barren sounds, evoking images of members recording the songs in a log cabin. The well-trodden but solidly produced tracks never waver, especially "Doralee" and the slightly upbeat, honky tonk of "Lonely Hill." Resembling a trace of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," the tune discusses heartbreak over a cross between Appalachian music and traditional country twang. "Don't Let Me Go" is another fine gem that doesn't stray too far from Sykes' strong points.
This double-disc reissue documents one of the more curious careers in country music. Both 1978's White Mansions and 1980's The Legend of Jesse James are Southern song cycles that were conceived by Britain's Paul Kennerley, then an unknown songwriter who somehow recruited a high-profile cast for each. A Civil War saga from the Southern perspective, White Mansions suffers from caricature and cliché but benefits from signature contributions by Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Eric Clapton. Jesse James has more focus and narrative momentum, with Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, and Emmylou Harris in lead roles. Though the albums are more noteworthy for artistic ambition than memorable material, Kennerley subsequently became a successful Nashville songwriter.