Blue Norther

Jesse Sykes spreads the joy of melancholy

The sound of Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter hits like a cold front on the first day of winter. As guitarist Phil Wandscher's blustery leads swirl through the desolate streets, echoing off the brick and stinging your cheeks, Sykes' weary voice hangs heavy in the air, each syllable dissipating like a crystalline breath, a fog so heavy it just might collapse under the weight of its own beauty. It's a sound that perfectly encapsulates the duality of the winter months—cold and lonely like 4 p.m. sunsets and chilly bathroom tile, yet at the same time warm and familiar, like the smell of your favorite coat or the reassuring hum of a space heater.

"There is a wintriness to my songwriting and the way we sound, " Sykes says. "I would think anyone who lives in Seattle, even if they're writing sugar pop, would have to, on some level, own up to the fact that the weather does affect what they do." Sykes is quick to point out that the forces behind the band's melancholy sound are more than just seasonal affective disorder, however.

"[Our records] cover a lot of issues of vulnerability. And I think just maybe there's something about what winter represents that comes from that state of being. That sort of fragile human emotion," Sykes says, adding, "I'm thinking at times 'I just wrote a pop song!' but people perceive it as being on the dark side of things."

Snuggle up: Jesse Sykes' dark, wintry pop is coming to town.
Snuggle up: Jesse Sykes' dark, wintry pop is coming to town.

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Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter perform Saturday, February 3, at the Gypsy Tea Room's Ballroom, with Sparklehorse.

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Since meeting boyfriend and kindred musical spirit Wandscher (a founding member of alt-country legends Whiskeytown) at a Seattle dive bar in 1998, Sykes has successfully staked her claim on "the dark side of things"—a fact not surprising for someone equally enamored with Townes Van Zandt and One Hundred Years of Solitude—earning critical kudos and making fans of fellow musicians such as Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, who invited the band on tour in 2005.

Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul, the band's newest and most ambitious release, will only add to this growing cult of fans. A document of a band in full command of its powers, Like, Love sees the group expanding on the country-noir of its first two albums, adding new colors to their sonic palette while retaining the same gray-skied mood that made those releases so haunting. Most noticeable, however, is the continued evolution of Sykes' singing and songwriting.

For instance, songs such as "You Might Walk Away" and "I Like the Sound" see both band and writer venturing further into pop territory than ever before—from the handclaps and hummable melody line of the former to the "bah, bah, bah" backing vocals of the latter—while the obliquely political lyrics of "Eisenhower Moon" are some of Sykes' most memorable to date ("And will I still find you there?/In the stone and wire, the disconnect/That gets me nowhere...beautiful at any age/Eisenhower moon, hovering/Like a weight on the day." )

The album's finest moment, however, arrives on "The Air Is Thin," a simple, desperate song of heartbreak that culminates in a group chorus of staggering beauty, with some 12 voices rising in unison as Sykes and Swedish singer-songwriter Nicolai Dunger wail the refrain into the darkness. "We did it really late at night," Sykes says. "I was starting to lose my voice, and for some reason I just sang like my life depended on it."

It's these type of performances that put Sykes on a short list of today's most distinctive female vocalists, earning her countless comparisons to singers such as Marianne Faithfull, Margo Timmins and Linda Thompson. "I'm a character singer in a sense," she says, and she's right—her smoky vocals are heavy with the type of gravity and wisdom that can only come from the weight of true experience, a quality befitting a former waitress. And with Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul, she's served up her first masterpiece.

 
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