A friend of mine, five years my senior, once said that as he got older, he started listening to more and more country records. He said that, after a while, irony loses its appeal and you start looking for something genuine. I can’t say I disagree with him, as I’ve learned to love Americana in its many forms. Yet, in listening to country, you don’t escape irony. When your interest in lo-fi indie pop starts to evolve into something more mature, you inevitably start listening to alt-country. What’s playing on mainstream country radio is nothing more than bubblegum pop with a Texan accent, and classic country artists are no longer part of Nashville’s formula for success. Johnny Cash is alt-country. Merle Haggard is alt-country. Loretta Lynn is alt-country now, too. And yet, these were once part of mainstream country music’s elite.
It’s funny how things have changed. The heartfelt emotion and sadness of country music is now hiding behind a three-letter prefix, hiding the fact that it’s something sincere that people can listen to and actually feel. Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter may be an alt-country band by designation, but on their latest, Oh, My Girl, the Seattle band proves that even when its released on a hipster label, it can still be country music at heart.
Oh, My Girl is the sound of heartbreak and longing. It’s the sort of lonesome country album that hasn’t made its way on to the country charts in years. The title track opens the album with acoustic guitars and Sykes’ weathered rasp. Though Sykes has often been compared to Neko Case, her singing style couldn’t be farther from the Virginian’s sultry croon. “You Are Not Gotten Here” is the next in line, a droning dirge that’s airy and spooky, which would make a perfect fit to soundtrack a ghost town when The Specials isn’t in your car at the time.
One of the finest tracks on the album is “Troubled Soul,” which creeps along against a melody of reverb-heavy guitars and a viola that could easily take the “no” out of “no depression.” Sykes sings of searching for love and leaving behind her no-good town, a recurring theme in traditional country music, though probably not one that Tim McGraw cares to visit.
Elsewhere, in “Tell the Boys,” the closest thing to a Nashville hit on the album, guitarist Phil Wandscher delivers a catchy, haunting hook that couples nicely with Sykes’ lyrical regret. And it’s here where we hear her sing one of the best lines in American balladry: “He took the fall/ `cause some things in life are still worth a good brawl.”
There’s no escaping calling Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter alt-country. They’re on Barsuk records and from (gasp!) Seattle. But you know what? Fuck Nashville. Country isn’t about putting a boot in someone’s ass for your country or being a good housewife. Real country music comes from the heart, which is undoubtedly Oh, My Girl‘s point of origin.
Neko Case – Blacklisted
Cat Power – Moon Pix
Giant Sand – Chore of Enchantment
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.