The Staveley-Taylor sisters have spent the past decade gently pushing the musical boundaries of folk. Their debut, Dead & Born & Grown, was traditional, bare-bones, and acoustic, but they started evolving almost immediately. When Justin Vernon took over for 2015’s If I Was, their sound expanded drastically, incorporating synths and more dramatic arrangements on songs like the four-minute mini-epic “Blood I Bled.” Working again with Vernon and BJ Burton on 2017’s The Way Is Read, they expanded even further, collaborating with the contemporary classical group yMusic and interlocking their pristine harmonies with flailing woodwinds and strings.
Good Woman show the sisters pushing even further into the unknown. The music was primarily produced by the Staves after a series of life-changing events, including the loss of their mother, the birth of Emily Staveley-Taylor’s child. and the end of a five-year relationship. The three of them (they call themselves a “three-headed-monster”) began writing about those events, bringing forth songs about undue emotional burdens, controlling exes, and gender roles. Late in the process, they recruited John Congleton, someone whose crunchy, heavy sound (heard on St. Vincent and Sharon Van Etten records) doesn’t quite gel with the Staves. Even though the record often sounds like a battle between the musicians and their engineer, the songs on Good Woman are strong enough to overcome any friction.
Congleton encouraged the trio to write more honestly about their emotions. The Staves could be surprisingly acerbic in the past, but they haven’t bared their feelings on record like they do here. On “Paralysed,” the sisters sing “I used to be/Something you made and admired/I used to be fire, I used to be magic,” and on “Failure,” they internalize the criticisms of an ex before realizing he’s no better. Both these songs show women handling emotional labor while their partners don’t hold themselves accountable. Previous Staves records often seemed to use lyrics as a vehicle for the music, so the specificity is welcome.
Right from the title track, Congleton’s influence is obvious—the dry drum thud used on his Bombay Bicycle Club and Everything Everything records, the distortion from Sharon Van Etten. When Congleton and the Staves line up, it’s on more uptempo songs where the Staves push themselves. “Best Friend” is lovely, euphoric indie pop as earnest as its title. The band has cheekily referred to “Black & White” from If I Was as “the first Staves rock song,” and on this record, they make up for what feels like lost time: even the ballads like “Satisfied” and “Trying” are louder and more extroverted than before.
Unfortunately, that means their usual intimacy goes missing. Ethan Johns brought the minimalism of early Laura Marling records to his Staves sessions, and Vernon hadn’t yet gone for 22, A Million intensity, but Congleton doesn’t adjust his go-for-the-rafters approach. “Careful Kid” kicks off with a wheezing sound effect that dooms the song even before Congleton’s cavernous drums crowd out the chorus. Similarly, “Sparks,” otherwise a highlight, layers on synth pads until it begins to sound like several songs at once. The most disappointing moment on the record is the final version of “Nothing’s Gonna Happen,” which buries a gorgeous demo they released a year ago in too many woodwinds and distorted effects. The backing vocals on “Sparks” repeat “…and I feel it all,” but Congleton does his damndest to obscure a direct connection to those feelings.
The Staves manage to overcome Congleton’s production and mixing tics because their voices can cut through anything. Whether they appear on Lucy Rose, Leonard Cohen, or Bruce Hornsby records, their harmonies always stand out. It’s heartening to hear them turn their attention inward; maybe next time, they’ll trust that sound to do its work without the input—or intrusions—from a collaborator.
Buy: Rough Trade
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