Trio of one
Domestic Science Club
Crystal Clear Sound
Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt did it first in 1987, donning their Sunday best for the stirring Trio and attending services at the Church of the Holy Tradition; it was '80s country by way of '50s pop, passion mitigated by sweetness and a cover of "To Know Him is To Love Him." The Domestic Science Club--the "side project" featuring Sara Hickman, ex-Dixie Chick Robin Macy, and Patty Lege--takes the same route, except the trio's tradition is even more contemporary-folk-based (they swap tougher-than-nails Linda Thompson for lighter-than-a-feather Nanci Griffith), and they bond over a kitchen table instead of the honky-tonk bar.
In theory, it's a lovely idea: Macy makes for a nice Harris, all quivers and quavers when her voice reaches for the stars and winds up on the moon. Lege stands in for Parton, her crystalline voice ringing loud and clear like a folkie who just discovered country music, which leaves Hickman to take the Ronstadt role, appropriate enough since her own post-Equal Scary People solo forays steered for the middle of the road until they wound up in the ditch.
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Together, they sound like sisters singing in one voice, and this is clearly a project of equals, where each of the women is as comfortable standing in the back as singing in the front; there's often no sound more intoxicating than the piercing perfection of harmonies done right, and these three singers do them more right than wrong. Think of them as the Andrew Sisters doing Nanci Griffith covers, and it gets you halfway there.
The song selection is what ultimately betrays this Science Club, which sounds like an experiment in time travel gone awry--meaning just when you want to hear more swing, it stumbles back into folk, and you've been down that road before. Hickman's still a damned fine songwriter, even if she often seems confused by what to do with her children, yet she contributes only two numbers here--one of which is, oddly enough, "Why Don't You?" a sweet and coy song originally found on Equal Scary People that becomes overcooked hash in this swinging hillbilly arrangement.
They sing their love songs ("Reserved for the One I Love") and breakup songs ("You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet") with equal delight, until you can't tell if they're heartbroken or happy, but such is the price of liberation. There are genuine moments of wonder: The three weave their voices together on "Unseen Angels" like inextricable strands in a gorgeous quilt, and their take on "Goodbye and So Long to You" recalls the sort of lilting Western swing the Dixie Chicks did best when they weren't so concerned with shtick. But at other times (their cover of "I Want to Be Evil") they just sound like a novelty--at best.