As fetching backups for Jenny Lewis’s faux–Loretta Lynn country-folk memoir/solo doo-dah-day Rabbit Fur Coat, the Watson Twins pretty much sabotaged their own debutante ball: The duo’s debut, Southern Manners (self-released in 2006 while touring with Lewis), unjustly fell to the wayside. Now, the raven-haired sisters from Kentucky (since ensconced in L.A.’s indie-polluted Silverlake district) return with an album that has none of Lewis’s snark and bite, but still packs plenty of emotional ruin. It’s also languid and dusty, but with a restrained use of pedal steel that’s not to be believed. Fire Songs isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s in the right ZIP code.
Yet it gets where it’s going to by circuitous routes. Clearly the sisters’ vocals are the main attraction—and there are sultry harmonies aplenty—but producers Russell Pollard and J. Soda don’t push them to the forefront. Instead, the Watsons fall into a pocket of pungent atmospherics: The bouncy pop piano that propels opener “How Am I to Be” leads later to a storm cloud of cellos on “Fall,” and then to swayback horns on “Map to Where You Are.” The songs keep sliding away from easy classifications: sunset folk-rock? Country lounge-core? True, Jenny Lewis would never muck around with a cliché like “I gotta dig a little deeper” and then pile on yet another groaner with “I think my time is now.” But then, Lewis picked that corny dud “Handle With Care” to cover, whereas the Watsons go with the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and turn it into a triumph. They slow it down, of course, and throw in a harmonica that, incredibly, doesn’t sound out of place or cheesy. The result is four minutes and change of sweet, burning seduction. Lewis had her turn, but now the Watson Twins deserve some recognition for their own happy doo-dah-day.
The Watson Twins play the Music Hall of Williamsburg July 10 and Mercury Lounge July 11