Though this is just an extended play CD with five tracks what caught my ear was the summer-sensation feel of early 1960’s female vocals and arrangements. I don’t know what’s in the water lately but many young female vocalists are beginning to explore this genre and so far what I hear is refreshing. Dara Sisterhen is one of the most intriguing.
A native of North Carolina — Dara has an innocently imaginative voice that would be in good company with pop classic female vocalists such as Robin Ward (“Wonderful Summer”), Diane Renay (“Navy Blue”), Lesley Gore (“That’s The Way Boys Are”), Tracey Dey (“Here Comes The Boy”), and Marcie Blaine (super-classic “Bobby’s Girl”). Her opening track “Kids” is filled with that very same adolescent angst and chiming 60’s style-guitars and drum beat that those other female singers scored with.
The voice in this tune (Dara) obviously represents a pre-adolescent — in that she mentions lunch boxes, doesn’t want to grow up, and playing hopscotch. Dara is way too young herself today to remember those days but she has researched the era thoroughly to make this song a reality. Even the over-all melody aches with 60’s pop-hook-energy. It’s contemporary yet, it holds on tight to a pleasant and memorable nostalgia. I lived back in those days and I enjoyed this little return to another era.
“Sets Me Free,” continues in this nostalgic vein. With a delicious melody and a Nanci Griffith type vocal. Warm, sincere and striking. The musicians don’t crowd in around Dara’s vocal – they support with subdued precision. Dara’s inflections on key lyrics is magical on this track. This tune is instantly memorable, and tasty like a big peach ice cream cone. And what makes this song special despite it’s adolescent approach is the maturity in Dara’s presentation. Sample of this song is below.
Third track is a little more serious as “Forever’s Not So Long,” and it’s faithful to it’s 60’s style arrangement. Even though it’s reminiscent of that turbulent era and classic music years – the song is modernized, and represents what that music of yesterday would sound like if miraculously it survived and continued to be made into the 21st Century. Dara’s showcase also exemplifies how wonderful that music actually was even if then we just thought it was a top ten song with a good beat and nothing more. Now it’s a piece of baby boomer memories. This song has a little touch of The Shangri-Las and The Dixie Cups and again, it’s filled with splendid and inspired radiance.
“Easy To Fool,” sounds like a tune Brenda Lee (“Emotions”, “All Alone Am I”) or Shelley Fabares (“Johnny Angel”) would have done. It displays the excellent vocal prowess of Dara Sisterhen and a slight lean into country. Today? I could hear Reba McIntyre easily cover this. It shuffles along in its slight echo under a stairway in the studio hallway and goes for the heart and doesn’t miss.
This has all been good but it’s been all swimming more or less in the same stream.
Until Dara’s final track “I Wanna Be Your Girl,” where Dara lets her hair down and rocks out. This is shades of early female rock like the The Angels (“My Boyfriend’s Back”) up to and including Joan Jett and Suzie Quarto who in the 70’s more or less made the same attempts that Dara is doing here. But, the difference is that Dara is more disciplined and true to the tradition of the old 60’s female vocalists. Her guitars and drums don’t try to elevate the songs and out-perform them. The tradition is not forgotten and though she is true to that form she is not necessarily singing these tunes in a retro style. She has injected them with renewed vigor. I admire that.
There’s no abundance of special effects and over-dramatizing. This song is like the Rolling Stones’ when they did “I Wanna Be Your Man.” It has that striking response chord of 1964. Many would say female vocalists didn’t come into the fray until Janis Joplin and Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) but I beg to differ. I think some great female rockers before the British Invasion were youngsters like Leslie Gore, Brenda Lee and Mary Weiss (lead singer of The Shangri-Las). We also had earlier editions of even Tina Turner (though most purists would say she was still in a soul groove and not entirely rock). Wanda Jackson then would have been the female rocker of note.
But, Dara takes her idealistic “retro influence” from people like Gore, Lee and Weiss – no doubt. Even if she is not entirely aware of this — listening to Dara’s songs instantly brings these female vocalists to mind. I would even throw in Robin Ward again because the flip side of her beautiful “Wonderful Summer,” was a steady-angst ridden echo flavored tune called “Dream Boy,” that is every bit a Dara-type tune. Dara should even consider covering this obscure jewel.
Merilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning,” and her incredible version of The Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” is also something that instantly reminded me of what Dara is doing today. These were all winning songs back in their day and for the most part few female vocalists are really addressing heartbreak, loneliness, angst and apprehension in this manner today — I am certain many young girls do experience these emotions even today.
Many female R&B, rap and hip-hop singers always go for the tuff-girl approach but not every girl is tough, or tough-skinned or thick-blooded. Many yearn for answers and understanding that there are others out there like them who are confused, frightened and angry. Dara in her simple way is addressing this whether she knows this or not. Will it appeal to millions of ears? Maybe, maybe not. But someone will like this and someone will be talking about it like I am thirty or more years from now.
Bottom line? I find it refreshing and it is a bold, brave move.
What is smart and wise here is that Dara doesn’t even look like any of those veteran female singers. No beehive, no black hair, heavy dark make-up, flamboyance, leather jacket, scowl or screw me boots. She is her own person. Many reviewers have compared Dara to several more modern contemporary singers but Dara’s real sound goes further back than those artists. I have mentioned several, though older and probably further from memory, who are more viable. Sample them for yourselves to hear the influence. It’s a music that’s been there before and it’s obviously still smoldering in the embers because it’s still a provocative winning style and Dara Sisterhen is one of its best.
At this point, with this EP — I don’t hear a lot of country influence or folk music – I hear an underlining influence but not a strong one as yet. This is still basic 60’s pop music.
“Robin Ward” was a country singer, but in order to release “Wonderful Summer” and “Dream Boy,” she used her daughter’s name Robin Ward while her country singing name remained Jackie Ward.
None of the other female vocalists I mentioned — except for Brenda Lee – were country. Does that mean Dara doesn’t have a country career? Not at all. She has a great voice and will probably succeed with whatever music she chooses to sing.
Now, I understand today’s country is acceptable as a new pop music. However, Taylor Swift is not Patsy Cline, Reba McIntyre, Dolly Parton, Roseanne Cash or Lucinda Williams. I am a little more true to the tradition of country music so I want to be fair. This EP — to my ears – is a well-disciplined 60’s pop ideal — not country in the truest form — traditional, outlaw or otherwise. It’s 60’s pop music – done very well – closer to The Shangri-Las than Patsy Cline. Yet, it’s not to be missed. And when the day comes that Dara explores a more fully-realized country-inflected influence she is going to light quite a fuse.
“Boom” was produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Cornell, The Oak Ridge Boys & Sturgill Simpson).
Photography: No Single Photographer Credit Cited – All images courtesy of Dara Sisterhen’s website.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / June 2015