David may have played a secret chord that pleased the Lord, but when it comes to a sound that pleases me deep in my own soul it comes from sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell who perform as Larkin Poe (reportedly the name of one of their great-greats).
They have a new album Blood Harmony that is 11 songs and 42 minutes of pounding driving guitar and slide guitar virtuosity – a deep funk that conjures bands as disparate as The James Gang, ZZ Top, The Allman Brothers and CSN&Y-era Neil Young (well, not so disparate). There’s also a heavy dose of Bonnie Raitt in the mix as well both in the vocals and the sound of the slide guitar.
The Lovell sisters who are in their early thirties and only two years apart have been playing professionally for more than half their lives – which is hard to believe unless you stop and ask yourself: What great musicians didn’t start playing gigs as teenagers? – none I can name (Ok, maybe Leonard Cohen but he’s the exception).
There is something also worth noting about the power and beauty of sister harmonies to be found in a good deal of contemporary Americana roots music be it Larkin Poe, First Aid Kit, Lucius, Appalachia Rising, or if one reaches back to the rock-heavy sounds of Heart.
I came to the Larkin Poe party relatively late, in 2018, when they performed in Los Angeles as part of a benefit concert for both the Americana Music Association and The Blues Foundations. They played a Leadbelly song, “Black Betty” which blew the roof off the theater at the Ace Hotel and which jolted me more than a triple espresso. You can find their cover on their 2017 album Peach (which, I confess, like many first loves, remains my favorite Larkin Poe album).
During the pandemic, Larkin Poe recorded lots of impromptu performances, sometimes backstage before a show, and sometimes as a livestreamed performance, adding to a large catalogue of covers they have done in the last seven years that you can watch and listen to on YouTube. They cover songs they like, and songs they admire, and songs that mean something to them, and it’s a very wide range that includes a surprisingly great Staying Alive by the Bee Gees, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, The Allman Brothers’ One Way Out, Steve Miller’s The Joker, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, The Stones’ Start Me Up, Seal’s Kiss From a Rose, Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, Rod Stewart’s Maggie May (really great!), a beautiful cover of James Taylor’s You Can Close Your Eyes, The Band’s Ophelia… The list goes on and on. And if you know me at all, and even if you don’t, know I spent many a Friday or Saturday late night of the pandemic watching their videos on YouTube.
Blood Harmony opens with the track Deep Stays Down with some beautiful picking (I’m assuming by Megan). Rebecca’s voice is really like another instrument being played, with the words playing off the guitar work. The song builds to an ever louder chorus that reminds one of a Church Hymn – that is if you belong to the Church of the American Delta and the Blues.
Here are some random thoughts about several of the album’s other tracks: Bad Spell has the deep funk of a 70s electric blues recording – this is the track that made think most of the James Gang.
Kick the Blues is a song where the playing is double speed, and it is certainly a Bonnie Raitt-worthy track.
“Might As Well Be Me” is a ballad in which Rebecca Lovell’s vocals soar. Her voice has over the last few years gotten fuller and stronger, holding those notes longer. Megan’s guitar work makes me think of Keith Richards’ descriptions of when he is cross stitching and weaving the grooves in and out of the song. At the end of the song, when Rebecca pleads “Let it be me” there is an insistence. She’s not begging, she’s demanding it be so.
“Lips as Cold as Diamond” probably comes closest to feeling like they are covering a traditional dirge – in the tradition of “Make Sure My Grave is Kept Clean.”
Now, I will say that on this album the music speaks stronger than the lyrics. I have no idea if the songs on Blood Harmony are filled with personal experience (they may well be) but they don’t sound like they are. By contrast, I’m not saying that songs need to be autobiographical – or even make complete sense (see Bob Dylan) but the lyrics need to feel like they are telling us something we need to hear.
There is always an exception to the rule and there is one song here that is clearly autobiographically-inspired, and which is my favorite track on the album, “Georgia Off My Mind” – the Lovell sisters hail from North Georgia and are now based in Nashville, Tennessee — and this song makes those facts a song. Although their original song, this could easily be a classic Bonnie Raitt song; and Megan’s slide guitar playing is very much ‘school of Bonnie’ on this track.
What more can I say? There is one problem with listening to an album of Larkin Poe – you just want to listen to more and more Larkin Poe songs and covers. But, as my parents used to say, these are good problems to have.