I was going to be driving across Scotland on my way to Ullapool to visit a sick friend; I figured that, the four and a half hour drive was as good a time as any to listen to a few CDs that had been submitted to me for review. I ripped them all and put them on my MP3 player ready for the long, but breathtakingly beautiful drive through the Scottish Highlands. Usually my musical fare on trips like this consists of music that enhances the visual splendour, that sounds like the world around me looks; and in the case of the Scottish Highlands that would be Afro Celt, Wolfstone and Chopin.
In the car, not long into my journey I slipped into that all too familiar state of semi-conscious driving, while having a deep conversation with the little voices inside my head. About 45 minutes into my drive, just north of Perth, with the green mountainous majesty of the Scottish scenery slipping past me steadily at 70 mph, a deep melancholy, bluesy guitar riff grabbed my attention. The fabulous riff was quickly glazed by a smooth, honeyed female voice, joined in harmony by a round, sweet male voice to complete this bittersweet, nostalgic melody, rippling with bluesy, alt country atmosphere. This was my introduction to The Bittersweets.
As that first song, “When the World Ends,” unfolded it was clear that this band’s name fit perfectly with their happily redolent Americana sound; the rolling harmonies and melodies, a gritty, rugged, youthful sound with still, smoothed edges of age and wisdom to add weight and balance. The Bittersweets sound fit perfectly with the bleak, cozy beauty of the countryside, the backdrop of my awesome introduction.
The Bittersweets are a Nashville-based band formed around vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chris Meyers, vocalist Hannah Prater and former Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman. Together they have created a roots rock/alt country sound that isn’t too country and not too rock and roll. Think Rilo Kiley without the twang or Shawn Colvin minus the twee.
Their debut album, The Life You Always Wanted, released in 2006, is one of the strongest and most surprisingly mature albums from a young band I have heard. Prater’s voice has a silky smooth, gentle, dulcet quality that weaves an enchanting aural picture, with echoes of vocalists like Norah Jones, Natalie Merchant and Emmylou Harris. Meyers’ lyrics and music are thoughtful, never overwrought, never pushing you too far, but instead lulling you into a warm comfortable place. His vocals, whether harmonising with Prater’s or serving as main vocals are fluid and guileless. When they mingle together, Prater and Meyers’ voices have a bittersweet quality, which wraps you in a complaisant blanket of luxurious nostalgia.
As I listened to the album over the next few days, its impact on me never diminished. Second track “Adam” continued The Bittersweets,’ bittersweet journey, shifting the tempo up, but still managing to maintain that tender and resolute atmosphere. Other stand-out tracks include “Bag of Bones,” a meandering, softly dramatic song. Here the music feels like Prater’s own breath, sung tortuously, delicately and the effect is dynamic, a supple willow tree bending with her every sigh.
“Long Day” is an effervescent tune with perfect harmonies and melodies, filled with sorrow and weariness, but so subtle is the heartache that you might not even notice it. “Houston” sees songwriter and guitarist Meyers get a chance on lead vocals. The resulting switch in gears is an interesting addition and Meyers’ pleasingly poignant, throaty vocals add an amiable twist in the road. “Burn Out My Eyes” is a heart-rending song, Prater’s voice once again achingly delicate, and tender, the music controlled by her breathy vocal ministrations. “Shooting Out the Sky” is a beautiful ballad with all the mellow, sentimental emotion that The Bittersweets are so good at.
The Bittersweets are a band that shouldn’t be missed, and their debut album The Life You Always Wanted really should be in your music collection. Both The Bittersweets and the album will be making a regular appearance on any car journey across Scotland I make. To hear The Bittersweet’s for yourself, you can visit their MySpace space or their own website.