In 1985, Russell Carter initially rejected the Indigo Girls’ (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) request for him to be their manager. He thought these female folk-rocking guitarists from the suburbs of Atlanta were unlikely to get a record deal. The reason? He thought that their lyrics were “immature.”
Now, 26 years later, we can laugh because Ray and Saliers have risen to worldwide fame. They have released 14 full-length studio albums, many of which have gone platinum. They have also demonstrated tremendous strength as women to do business inside of a male-dominated recording industry and the courage to place themselves in the public spotlight as openly gay singers. They have been activists for meaningful social causes and are proud to defend their beliefs, even when these beliefs are unpopular.
Perhaps the success of their first album Strange Fire (1987) changed Russell’s opinion, because he signed them and has been their manager ever since. The recent release of Ray and Saliers’ 14th studio album — Beauty Queen Sister — makes Russell’s initial response to their music seem absurd.
In the case of this new album, however, Russell may have been right: The lyrics are immature.
The character of the 13 tracks that make up Beauty Queen Sister reflects the separation between Ray and Saliers’ musical styles. They can roughly be divided along lines of light and dark, joyful and realist, and lead vocals and backup. This juxtaposition may reflect the fact that they often write their music separately, coming together to arrange the harmonies after they finish their writing. Unfortunately for this album, the back-and-forth gives the album a repetitive flavor.
Echoing the tone of her earlier work (“Closer to Fine,” for instance) Saliers remains upbeat, matronly and nurturing — like sunshine and nursery rhymes. In the track “John,” Saliers compares the simplicity of country life with the urban metropolis. “John” quenches the unmet needs of “the girl from the city.” He “brings the country to me,” Saliers sings.
While John’s “country” could be a euphemism, it seems less the case in light of the images Saliers sings of: “His mama go[ing] to the local Baptist church,” “field corn on his lot” and “brushwood burning so pretty.”
Also adding to Saliers’ wholesome song is her portrayal of environmental destruction caused by city dwellers. They visit the countryside, particularly “Rich men who come grilling and swilling.” They tempt John to “sell the rights to fish the trout” that live in a nearby lake.
These moments lack depth because Saliers parses people and places into simplistic categories of good and bad. This is especially noticeable in the track “We Get to Feel It All.” Saliers sings about the timelessness of life’s ups and downs. “My, my … how time flies,” Saliers begins. “Mid-October or the month of June/ Temperatures rise and fall/ We get to feel it all.” And then as suddenly as she flips a datebook, Saliers overcomes her difficulties. “But through the will of my own/ I just found my way home.”
Perseverance through times of struggle may be timeless, but the analogies Saliers chooses are hokey. They also seem disconnected from the actual struggles she sings about, escapist and out of touch with the 2011 economy. Saliers’ attempts to rekindle memories of a rustic small-town feel superficial — it may look like Chicken Soup for the Soul, but it still tastes as artificial as Campbell’s.
Ray acts as a foil to Saliers. Although Ray has mellowed over the past 25 years, she still wears her poker face well, the lines of experience making her subdued lyrics feel sexy like an aged red wine. She sings in the dark to the moon in the album’s first ballad “Share the Moon.” She conjures images of evangelical revivals where the participants speak in tongues.
Ray’s husky smokiness shows in the album’s title track “Beauty Queen Sister.” She enters the song like John Wayne. “Hey little sister, I dig it okay/ I’m lookin’ for the fountain of love/ Where the wild heart reigns/ And the night draws blood/ And beauty is the game.” It’s no surprise that the beauty queen sister “always got the broken heart” from this cowboy. Ray advises her to “hang on tight.”
The musical quality of this album is where it shines. It goes without saying that both Saliers and Ray play the guitar with expertise. Even the back band, especially the fiddle player, breaks in with rich crescendos. This helps complement Saliers and Ray’s steady strums.
After listening to the album in its entirety, one wonders whether Saliers and Ray will break out of their established roles. But if they were to do so, would we still like them? Could they still be two independent women? But, since when have the Indigo Girls ever given two cents to worrying about whether people are going to judge them. It’s not their style.
3 out of 5 stars