Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter – Dark, mossy energy
Shortly after singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes met guitarist Phil Wandscher, they took an off-road trip near Stevens Pass, Washington, getting lost on a rugged logging road in a downpour as darkness fell. “I was scared, but I was so in the midst of falling in love that I didn’t care,” Sykes explains. “When I got back to town I wrote the song ‘Reckless Burning’ about the way in which you fall in love and you feel willing to be vulnerable.”
That trust is the cornerstone of Sykes and Wandscher’s musical and personal partnership. “I had just come out of a divorce and the breakup of my band Hominy, and Phil had come out of Whiskeytown,” Sykes says, referring to Wandscher’s 1997 departure from the North Carolina alt-country band and his subsequent relocation to Seattle. “I think when we met, we both just needed to have fun, and we did that.”
While Wandscher was reticent at first about working with someone he was romantically involved with, the pair soon found solace and inspiration in creative collaboration. The organic ease with which they played together and the gestation of the songs proved a perfect antidote to their previous musical experiences.
Soon Sykes and Wandscher added Anne Marie Ruljancich of the Walkabouts on violin. The threesome found an elegant and expressionistic palette for Sykes’ evocative lyrics. Their spare, muscular songs plumbed the depths of dissolution and rebirth, the struggles between sadness and hope. “I called a bunch of musicians I was in awe of and asked them if they would make this record with us, and they did,” Sykes says of the Sweet Hereafter’s formation. “Luckily they decided to keep going.”
With bassist Bill Herzog (Citizen’s Utilities, Neko Case) and drummer Kevin Warner, the band recorded Reckless Burning with producer Tucker Martine. The album captures Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter in all their nuances and textures. Sykes and Wandscher alight their songs’ hard experience with a sweet surrender that nods to the troubled undercurrents of life while heading for higher ground. Wandscher’s moody guitar creates a subtly shifting atmosphere of countrified folk-noir; Sykes’ exquisite voice is front-and-center, suggesting a cross between Emmylou Harris and a haunted Bobbie Gentry.
Many of the songs were written on nature excursions. While Wandscher fished, Sykes would sit by the campfire and work on songs. “It’s rooted in the dark, mossy energy of the Northwest,” says Sykes. That natural darkness suffuses Reckless Burning with a slow, consuming heat that takes the listener to a private emotional geography. “Our record isn’t something that confronts you,” Wandscher says. “It takes you by the hand and leads you somewhere.”