Jessica Lea Mayfield
Make My Head Sing ...
Jessica Lea Mayfield has never been one for bottling up her emotions on record. But the Ohio-born singer also knows the difference between blunt and obvious.
Her two previous albums wrapped every brittle romantic blemish in an often elegant Americana sweep led by a light, trance-like voice that was often placed back in the mix. It was as though she were trying to keep a safe distance from the fuss her lyrics kicked up.
Upon first listen, her new Make My Head Sing ... sounds like an abrupt about-face, a retreat from the Americana leanings of 2011's sublime Tell Me into a scorched, power trio-fortified no-man's-land.
But then you examine the voice, still whispery and plaintive but now soaked in enough reverb to make Neko Case blush, and the general narrative unrest, and you'll find that the changes in Make My Head Sing ... are largely ornamental.
The juggling of ragged guitar squalls and jangled but queasy riffs, all generated by Mayfield, sound like any number of late-'80s and '90s bands. The Cure and Nirvana are the most obvious references. But add Mayfield's demure but dark voice, which seems unrattled by the sonic wreckage around her, and the great Mazzy Star comes to mind.
Of course, it is in her red-flag love songs that the blunt-force cunning of Mayfield's songcraft truly surfaces. "I'm insane," she sings in the chorus over a sidewinding guitar riff than runs throughout I Wanna Love You. "You're going to find this out." Such an admission brings us to an intriguing fork in the road. Is the song's antagonist crazy for you or just plain crazy?
At the other extreme is Party Drugs, a burnout's requiem that sounds perplexed when the tenuous thread of a chemically enhanced romance tears completely. "Party drugs just make us argue," Mayfield sings with boozy, blurred detachment. "Don't know why. They didn't used to."
Then there is the album-opening Oblivious, which blends both the fearsome crunch of Mayfield's new sound and the familiar sense of resignation underneath it ("I could open up the sky to a world unknown, but I'd rather be oblivious").
It is easy to miss the neo-country ambience that Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys brought to Mayfield's first two albums as producer, and stepping away from that sound is a pretty gutsy career move. Ultimately, though, the ramshackle immediacy that Mayfield creates on Make My Head Sing ... with bassist/husband/co-producer Jesse Newport is a different guise for the same restless, indefinable sentiments.
Under the record's sonic crunch lurk stories as euphoric as they are troubled and as poetic as they debilitating. Ain't love grand?
Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Writer