Miss Tess: Live Across the Mason Dixon Line Volumes 1 & 2 Review
On a site called Live and BREATHING, while watching endless videos of Josh Oliver, immersing myself in his material for a review I was writing, was when I stumbled upon a songstress who looked about my age, but who seemed to be singing to me from the past. It was of course the lovely Miss Tess, who immediately sparked my curiosity because she seemed so young for her genre, especially to be playing it so well. When I noted that her press materials described her music as “modern vintage,” something clicked. So I mustered my courage and sent her an email, asking if I could review her latest album for my new blog, Songbirds & Seagulls.
Songbirds & Seagulls </3 Live Albums
My heart leaped when she responded right away, but it sank back down immediately upon discovering, to my disappointment, that her latest album was a live album. I hatelive albums. I know that there are people who argue relentlessly that the “energy” of a performance is best captured in a live setting, and that separate tracking and overdubs kill songs’ souls. I think that sounds like hippy/hipster garbage.
I want to listen to something that’s been polished, which is not to say that I don’t enjoy seeing live music, because I do. But when I see live music, I get to experience the chemistry in the room. Somehow listening to a live recording after the fact just falls flat for me. I can’t pretend to feel something I don’t feel.
So I did what any other blogger would do. I put off writing this review. I kept writing her name on my list of things to do, yet continued to find myself attending to much more pressing matters. Like watching TV. In the middle of an infomercial at 3 am, finally a sense of guilt compelled me to listen to the songs for the first time. And, though I stand by my stance regarding my preference for studio albums, Live Across the Mason Dixon Line, Volumes 1 & 2contain some outstanding music.
Volume 1 vs. Volume 2
Though these albums are entitled as a set, and though they are both live performances, there are marked differences between the two. That is, I vastly prefer Volume 2. In my opinion, Volume 1 is merely mediocre, whereas Volume 2is absolutely outstanding.
Live Across the Mason Dixon Line, Volume 1
Volume 1 falls prey to all of the typical shortcomings inherent in the majority of live albums. Most notably, the band just feels like they’re having an “off” night. The tempo speeds up and slows down throughout the songs, and the melody and harmony singing stray a little too far off tune, probably because of a lack of vocals in the monitors. The lead instrumentalists hit some iffy notes, as well, and, at times, comp too much while Miss Tess is singing, making it difficult to concentrate on what should be the focal point of the song, the vocals. Additionally, the vocals are just too distant. I do not want to have to strain to listen. The job of the recording is to present the material so that some aspects are highlighted, like the vocals, while other aspects, like the comping, are more foundational in nature. Overall, the mix lacks a life force found in Miss Tess’ studio work. (And no, that irony is not lost on me.)
My aim is not to be cruel, nor is it to single out Miss Tess. As I stated earlier, these faults are not unique to her or her album. They are common among live albums and it is just unfortunate that Miss Tess did not take measures to address these flaws prior to the double LP’s release.
Live Across the Mason Dixon Line, Volume 2
That said, Miss Tess’ Live Across the Mason Dixon Live, Volume 2 disproves everything I’ve said about live recordings. I love Volume 2. The band’s performance is tighter and higher energy. The vocals are strong and clean, and the melody and harmony are, at times, breathtaking. The solos sizzle. The overall sound quality is improved, and I found myself not even thinking about the mix, which is an indication that it was done well. Itschemistry is contagious, as it is conveyed despite the fact that I was not at the show. And it’s just got a pull-me-in, engaging, fun quality. It is a delight from start to finish.
Live From the Mason Dixon Line, Volume 2conjures images of summertime and sundresses, golden bands of diffused evening light dancing on the surface of waters that tempt us to shed our clothes and go skinny-dipping. These songs make me feel that I am floating or dreamily dancing, playing ring around the rosie, my pockets full of posies. These songs are the audio equivalent to the way a butterfly dances back and forth through the air, choosing its path unpredictably, with seeming reckless abandon and little regard for efficiency in reaching its destination, unaware in its innocence that it is a thing of beauty. These songs are recreational, meandering. They take their time getting where they need to go, indulging in the luxury of leisure and the long way, inviting you to slow down yourself and enjoy the ride. The songs are willowy, frolicking and fanciful, light as a feather tickling your skin or the brush of a kiss from your lover’s lips on your cheek. These songs hearken images of grassy fronds, weeping willow trees, the sound of children across the street in the schoolyard at recess. These songs curl and unfurl like the scent of a freshly baked pie wafting out of a window, beckoning all to come hither.
My favorite of all Miss Tess’ songs is perhaps the one entitled, “Bicycle,” which sounds exactly like its subject. The whimsical melody, breathtaking cello accompaniment, brushed drums and airy vocals echo the circling of pedals and wheels, and are inviting as the banana seat on a sparkling new Schwinn.You can feel the breeze in your hair, billowing up your dress as you stand to pedal harder up a hill. It’s a receipt getting caught in a gust of wind, making you lose your grip as your piece of paper flits and flickers back and forth, back and forth through the parking lot. It’s like pumping back and forth on a swing set, stretching your toes higher, higher with each ascension, reaching, reaching for that tree branch, hoping you won’t flip all the way over the bar like in those fables from elementary school. Yeah, at its best, Miss Tess’ music is like that. Warm and breezy, easy, carefree.
Miss Tess commands an additional amount of respect because, in addition to writing these songs, she plays her own guitar and takes solos, and doesn’t just rely on some guy in the band to do the hard parts for her. There’s nothing I deplore more than a woman acting as a prop in a band, just up there on the stage to look pretty.
Another thing I love about Miss Tess is that she’s a songwriter’s songwriter. She doesn’t take the easy way out, and I respect her for it. So many current musicians inexplicably bother to write and record songs with predictable chord changes, bland melodies, excruciatingly boring or inscrutable lyrics.
Miss Tess’ music, on the other hand, is riddled with minor chords and tumbling melodies that descend and delight me like watching a slinky crawl down a set of stairs. They are so unpredictable and inventive, lush and luxurious, that she is able to say a lot with mere melody that most people have to rely on words to say. That is a special gift, which is perhaps best exemplified in the case of Darling oh Darling, a song in which she demonstrates a deftness in the craft of songwriting unseen in much of modern music. That song is phenomenal. The harmonizing guitar solos in Everybody’s Darling But No One’s Sweetheart also cannot go unacknowledged.
Miss Tess also gets major points for originality. I don’t know of anyone else right now touring in the Americana scene that has such an eclectic, jazzy, old school and interesting vibe.
There’s an authenticity present in Miss Tess’ music. It is not contrived, not too far a stretch for the skeptical imagination. She is real. And she is rare.
Overall, I feel that these two albums are too disjointed to be offered as a set, and that Volume 2 suffers as a result of being paired with Volume 1. Thankfully, Volume 2 demonstrates strengths that leave my musical palate intrigued and yearning for the next release from the one and only Miss Tess.
Originality/Creativity: * * * * *
Arrangement: * * *
Lyrics: * * *
Instrumentation: * * *
Production: * * *
Melody/Harmony: * * * *
Album Art: * * * *
Total: 3 ½ stars