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to Do What? Erasing
As The Tennessee Twin, Cindy Wolfe and her band take hyper-traditional country, delivered with skill and panache, and mix it with subversive lyrics that alternate social critique with portraits of interpersonal relationships. It's an interesting fit; there's something appropriate about an American who cites Dubya as one of the reasons she's staying in Canada playing music that is American by definition and not just American, but of the heartland, of the most, um, "traditional' parts of the country. With a title song that takes on corporate influence on democracy ("free to do what? to buy this thing or that?") and a drawing on the disc that turns the American flag into a shopping bag, Free to Do What? has a nice, critical edge to it. Yet there's also humor at work, as evidenced by the line that the music walks between reverence and parody. There's the exact balance between the two--this is genuine country music, written and played superbly. Great melodic hooks are supported by country ballads and dance-hall shuffles. There's steel guitar, accordion, the whole works. There's even a fine cover of a Dolly Parton song, "Wildflowers." Yet as authentic as this all is--it is clear that Wolfe and the others love country music--there's also something playfully rebellious about the way that such authenticity blends with the lyrical critiques. When Wolfe's singing about domestic violence or critiquing the "everything's for sale" capitalist mentality, the lyrics jibe with the chosen musical style in an interesting, layered way. Free to Do What? also works, though, because there's such a jubilant sense of fun behind it, a quality that lifts you up to dancing while also adding an optimism to the social critiques.
To Do What? Shake
It Up! Review
Transplanted American Cindy Wolfe, now setting up shop in Vancouver, is a real twin (her sister being Allison of Bratmobile). One look at the CD cover or after a minute of listening to the opening title track will spell out where the "Tennessee" part comes in. Free To Do What? is a honky-tonking good time that'll have you clapping, singing, and partying along with Wolfe and friends in no time.
In taking the country route, Wolfe has the sense to write and sing material suited to her vocal style. While this doesn't amount to a powerhouse style like Neko Case or Kelly Hogan, Wolfe delivers on other accounts. What we get on Free To Do What? is a vocal delivery loaded with more than a little charm and honesty.
And then there's wit to spare. The title track is as scathing an indictment of corrupt values as its title suggests, working well with its country twang. The Apple Of Your Black Eye, a collaboration between Wolfe and New Pornographer Carl Newman, has lyrics that live up to its hilarious title while Ruben, Oh Ruben is one of the funnest "character" songs you'll hear ("he's our mailman!"). Maija Martin's accordion adds a nice dose of Zydeco here as well.
The noteworthy musicianship doesn't stop there, either. Shane Nelken's tasteful guitar playing does much throughout, while pedal steel player Mark Thibeault adds a perfect weeopy tone to songs like Oh Darkness. The versatility here ranges from barnburners like Southern Duckhead to more delicate takes like the cover of Dolly Parton's Wildflowers.
A feel-good collaborative environment comes through all over Free To Do What? (which, I'm guessing, probably makes their live shows memorable), with Wolfe expertly leading the proceedings. Instant fun.
to Do What? Ink19
Cindy Wolfe peers at me accusingly from the cover of her CD: she's pregnant, she's wearing some kind of demented princess gown/prom dress green satiny thing, and she's holding a protest sign: "FREE TO DO WHAT?" She's angry, but she's country; she's funny, but she's serious; her twin sister Allison Wolfe sings for Bratmobile, but Cindy always favored the western swing of their native Tennessee, so she chooses to do her protest songs as alt.old-ass.country. She channels Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn and all those honkytonk angels whose nasally twangs rocked the house back in the '40s and '50s and '60s... but making it all subversive and political and stuff. Not radical (remember early k.d. lang?), but spunky and respectful all at once.
That's what makes Free to Do What? so much fun: Cindy and her band hit it dead on. Her voice is pinched and perfect as she bangs out heavy-handed protest anthems like the title track ("Mr. President from the elections that weren't free / Thanks for all the violence and all the hypocrisy") and lighter smarter stuff like "The Apple of Your Black Eye" ("No I ain't fixin' no black-eyed peas / But you can have a black eye if you please"). She's got an ear for the big hooks, as you can hear in album-closer "It's Just Propane," and she's got a taste for blood, as she proves in the Gram Parsons rip "Big Emo Eyes." And her band is wonderful, especially fiddler/singer Monica Chattaway, accordionist/singer Maija Martin, and the rhythm section of Kurt Dahle and Coco Culbertson.
So there's everything to love about The Tennessee Twin and nothing to hate... unless you count the 33-minute running time of this CD.
Cindy Wolfe and her band play a truly alt version of country music. It's bouncy, it makes you feel good even when its message is "tomorrow can't get worse than today," and it's funnier than a long George Dubya speech with lots of "hard words." Wolfe, the identical twin sister of Bratmobile's Alison Wolfe, has moved from the US to Canada, reportedly at least in part as a reaction to the current administration, and her sister convinced her to follow her country heart and start a band. Turns out her band is one of the most entertaining around and she's quite a writer. Gotta love a line like "These thoughts are occupied, but not by you." My thoughts are occupied, too, with questions like "where have I heard this pedal steel player before?" Mark Thibeault, eh? Damn, the guy can make it twang. So can Cindy. Her voice has a great little nasal twang to it that reminds me of Bobbi Jo Bob, the fictional country singer in the 80s mini-series, Fresno. Yep, Bobbi Jo Bob with good songs. What a concept. This is only their debut. It's just gonna get better. That's the amazing part.
Free to Do What?
Vancouver, B.C.'s Tennessee Twin whup the country into shape.
Country music rarely, if ever, raises a defiant fist in the dust-covered face of convention. Even alt-country tends to hug the rails of established tradition, eschewing modern politics for old-fashioned songs about drinking and heartache. Of course, all that will change if Tennessee Twin's Cindy Wolfe has her way. On the band's debut record, Free to Do What?, Wolfe (twin sister of Bratmobile's Allison Wolfe) is raising the consciousness of trad country and putting it to work for feminist and anti-capitalist causes. Here, the personal is the political; Wolfe's status as a squeaky-voiced white girl is both a vehement political position and a reason to scrutinize her own beliefs. On the peppy title track, she delves into her own privilege, singing, "Free to do what?/To ruin the whole world/What I've been taught as a North American girl." On "The Apple of Your Black Eye," she turns typical depictions of spousal abuse upside down by granting power to the victim rather than lingering on her trauma. Even the record's cover, with its image of Wolfe in a silken party dress, hands clasped round a huge protest sign, signals a shift toward empowerment. This is music that kicks and fights its way toward equality, rather than whimpering for it. Tizzy Asher
Tennessee Twin play Graceland at 3 p.m. Sun., June 16. $8 adv.
It doesn't take long to fall for the charm that is Cindy Wolfe, lead vocalist, mandolin and sometime tambourine player for The Tennessee Twin. Her nasal voice, reminiscent of the old-time twang of Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, makes me want to buy a barn and throw a summer festival. Her voice is so authentically southern that, admittedly, I thought she was putting me on and was playing a faux alt-country urban hillbilly character. As it turns out, she was born and raised in Memphis.
In the title track 'Free to do what?' Wolfe asks: "Once upon a time I took a class called History/ It taught me how to make the world safe for democracy/but when I raised my hand, asking what had United Fruit planned/ Teacher said just sit back and thank God that you're free/ Free to do what?"
From these lines it's easy to see why she moved to Canada and signed
on with Mint Records, a company known for giving artists the right of
way. Wolfe came to Vancouver a few years ago and says that "Dubya"
will keep her from going back to the States any time soon. Their loss.
The entire album is a romp of fiddles, accordion, mandolin, pedal steel,
guitars and sugar sweet harmony-leaving the listener with the feeling
of stepping into a family affair, a backyard barbecue. But, as with
all backyard barbecues, this is not for everyone; if twangy vocals make
you cringe, and you just couldn't get into Robert Altman's Nashville,
Free to Do What?
What with the immensely popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Ryan Adams earning their fair share of Grammy nods and name-checks from Elton John, alt-country looks poised to possibly give today's dollar-driven Nashville a run for its money. Not that Shania and Faith need fret about new day jobs, of course, but it seems mainstream America may actually be interested in country music that's a little more, well, country. Whether that's good or bad depends on whether you'd rather an act like Neko Case become a household name or remain your "little secret," but considering Adams's newfound success, chances are that all the selfish indie-snobbery in Whiskeytown won't keep Case's next album of old-schooled country crooning off the charts and airwaves when it hits the street later this year.
Which must be a promising prospect for Cindy Wolfe, Case's old pal from Tacoma, Wash. On her Vancouver-based band's full-length debut the Tennessee Twin founder and yes, actual Memphis-born twin of Bratmobile's Allison Wolfe writes no-New Nashville numbers for yes-depressed listeners disenchanted with today's C&W world of gloss-pop superstars. Delightfully simple (but not simplistic), the dozen down-home slices of vintage country on Free to Do What? sound like a young Dolly Parton performing at the small-town hoedown in Waiting for Guffman's fictional musical. Sure, she's got a twang-tongued valley-girl drawl that'll deter as many ears as it wins over, but invest enough time in Wolfe's endearingly unpretentious and almost too-naive tales of bad-news boyfriends and cantankerous mailmen, and Tennessee Twin may win you over as one of alt-country's most charming new acts.
Wolfe and almost two dozen other country-nut Canucks and Americans appear on A Tribute to the Soundtrack to Robert Altman's Nashville, a perfect (and vastly superior, far more entertaining) successor to the O Brother soundtrack. "Directed" by Carolyn Mark an underrated, understated solo artist from Victoria, B.C. the 20-track tribute features Case, Kelly Hogan, the Corn Sisters, New Pornographer Carl Newman, and the Sadies' Dallas Good, among others, rerecording songs and dialogue snippets from the 1975 masterpiece about Music City biz and politics. It works brilliantly, too: the "cast members" embody their characters and inhabit their songs so impeccably whether hamming them up or playing them down that there's no need to brush up beforehand on the film's often confusing, crisscrossing story lines to fully enjoy the album.
Despite alt-country's increasing popularity outside of its overly insular "urban hick" cliques, however, it's a no-brainer that Free to Do What? and Nashville both released by north-of-the-border indie Mint Records won't come close to matching O Brother's and Adams's major-label successes. But then again, going tête-à-tête with U2 and Aerosmith at the Grammys isn't exactly the point. More important, acts like Tennessee Twin and those in Carolyn Mark's gaggle of wonderfully game tribute-contributors are content to keep the whiskey-drenched, steel-pedaled spirit of old country alive. And at least until the day when all those musicians who "slap a little electric fiddle on top of their pop and call it country" as Wolfe recently put it are handed their walking papers, there are few greater true country successes than that.
Free to Do What?
Fantastic, this is. Classic high lonesome sound, plaintive vocals, pitterpattery train drums, basslines you could walk, nay BOUND, past Nashville on, with lashings of twinkling pedal steel leading the honkytonkmerrygoround into a dance with Patsy Cline while being leered at by Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones (when he did a few good rockabilly-esque songs to compete with Elvis. O-k-a-ay). Reminds me hugely and pleasingly of The Wannabe Texans who I stumbled upon a few months ago, and similarly play a rootsy countrycajunbluegrass stir-fry which sounds instantly familiar but at the same time totally fresh, like you always imagine honky tonk to have been but never quite was. Simple, but very well written songs, sweet without being saccharine, with some brilliantly dark, quirky lyrics that are reminiscent of good ol' Hank Williams. On the magical Oh Darkness - "Why can't I see through my window, is it too dirty or am I just too short". Or on The Apple of your Black Eye - "Don't ask me for black eyed peas but you can have a black eye if you please / don't ask me for more fried okra, if you did I might try and choke you". Several of the songs are in the same stable as Gram Parsons (Blue Eyes, We'll Sweep Out The Ashes) in the way they swing a-go-go... The anti-Bush title track is a hugely pertinent statement (Recorded last September I'm assuming it was writ up before Sept 11th) what with his talk of exercising his itchy Texan trigger finger - "Free to do what? - to ruin the whole world" and "Mr. President from the elections that weren't free / Thanks for all the violence and the hypocrisy." There's not a bad moment in all of this, if you like varying noise with stuff like Gillian Welch or Lucinda Williams go out and buy it. Hell, buy it anyway, it's cool.
Free to Do What?
Vancouver's American exile Cindy Wolfe delivers old-timey country twang with a political edge, a punk bite, and a whole trunkful of great guitars, accordions, and holler. Take the killing songs of Gillian Welch and fuse the speedgrass fun of a Bloodshot band like The Meat Purveyors, take the Freakwater / Carter Family vocal class, and then write some amazing songs. In "Oh Darkness" the chorus "oh why can't I see out my windows / are they just too dirty or am I too short to see?" is fine contrast to the title track, an ode worthy of Woody Guthrie: a battlecry opposing the United States of Excess which surely is on repeat in the Adbusters layout room. Who writes songs like this any more? The music is rock-solid with a handful of New Pornographers (Todd Fancey, John Collins, Kurt Dahle), Buzzards (Shane Nelken, Mark Thibeault), and members of The Gay (Coco Culbertson, Maija Martin), and more superheroes like Monica Chattaway on fiddle and vocal harmonies. The punks and riot grrls in the audience would recognize Cindy's twin sister Allison who convinced her sister to assemble a band to open up for Bratmobile's first Vancouver show. Without that push we wouldn't have songs like "The Apple of Your Black Eye" or the delightful poke in your "Big Emo Eyes": "Shall I pine away for you, until my face turns blue, I think not..." Mercy.
Free to Do What?
All Music Guide
Dedicated to her mother, lead singer and songwriter Cindy Wolfe has a perfect voice for the country & western era of the original Grand Ole Opry. And while the songs hark back sonically to the likes of Kitty Wells and an early Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette, lyrically the songs touch upon modern issues such as globalization, Prozac, and the Western ways of the world on the title track. "Oh Darkness," with its pedal steel guitar and gentle harmonies, exemplifies most of the album's simple strength of a timeless honky tonk barroom style. "Southern Duckhead" is one of several high points where everything seems to fit in just under two minutes. "Tomorrow I'm Gonna Leave Him" is also brief but symbolizes most of the album's professional yet lightly produced charm, with some wry humor added in sporadically. An odd selection is "Aunt Apple and Cousin Orange," a '60s flower-power pop song that has some country elements, but neither complement each other. The concluding songs have a small Celtic trace running through them, with Wolfe doing an admirable job on "Wildflowers," penned by Dolly Parton. Doing justice to such a sacred style of the genre is a difficult chore, but the album lives up to the requirements in spades.
Former Olympia, WA resident and puppeteer Cindy Wolfe wanted to form a country band with her twin sister Allison. But since Allison has been occupied by her band Bratmobile, the Tennessee Twin has remained paired in name only. Having relocated to Vancouver at the behest of a New Pornographer a few years ago, and reluctant to return South, Cindy has used a rotating backing band for her heartfelt ballads and hillbilly barn burners. In addition to a debut seven-inch and upcoming full-length on Mint, Cindy Wolfe can also be seen in Low Self Esteem Girl (playing opposite Carl Newman, directed by Blaine Thurier, both New Pornographers); the film was recently awarded Best Narrative Feature at the South By Southwest Film Festival.
Forget alt-country -- this is the genuine article. Cindy Wolfe (actual twin sister to Bratmobile's Allison Wolfe) leads her skilled ensemble through a pair of twangy ballads that wouldn't sound out of place in any bar-room jukebox. "These Thoughts Are Occupied", while semantically suspect (you see, a mind can be occupied, but thoughts themselves can't...oh, sod it), is a perfect tale of post-breakup bravado, teaming Wolfe's mandolin and high-pitched, girly-girl vocals with fiddle, accordion and some gorgeous pedal steel; it goes on a little too long, but is otherwise flawless. "Oh Darkness" lacks the memorable lyrics of the A-side, but compensates by being shorter and sweeter, with more of that gorgeous mandolin/pedal steel interplay. If you can get your head around the concept of buying a country single by an expatriate Californian and her Canadian friends, you'll be well pleased by Tennessee Twin. Bring on the full-length!
Like Mint-mate Neko Case, Lucinda "Cindy" Wolfe makes country
music backed by a rotating collection of instrument-wielding friends
from the Great Northwest. On this debut recording, Wolfe (the Memphis-born
identical twin of Bratmobiles Allison Wolfe, hence the nom de
twang) offers a pair of self-penned, decidedly old-style tunes. Wolfes
vocalizing, while not quite showcase-caliber, is well above serviceable,
and a roots orchestra built around mandolin and fiddle does its job
without making a fuss about it. But its the writing that offers
the biggest payoff, especially the nifty chorus of "These Thoughts
Are Occupied" "My thoughts are occupied, but not by
you," zings its punch (to the heart) line, as some poor bastard
learns hell get 86'ed if the narrators former lover returns.
Opening tonights evening session at YoYo a Go Go will be The Tennessee Twin, the country band headed by Olympia native Cindy Wolfe. Nada Mucho caught up with Cindy at her current home in Vancouver, Canada this week to talk about her band, her influences, puppets, heroin, and this years Yo Yo lineup, among other things.
Nada Mucho: Who is The Tennessee Twin?
NM: Do you have a set lineup now, or
is it pretty much you, your songs, and whichever talented musicians
you can find at the time?
NM: How would you describe your music?
NM: Where are you recording your album
this fall, who will be playing on it, and what label will it be released
Me: Lead vocals, some harmonies, and
NM: What with the success of bands like
Wilco and labels like Bloodshot, it seems as if all the punks have gone
country. Did we miss some sort of memo?
NM: Ahhhhh, the South. . . It definitely
sounds like youve had some diverse experiences to shape your musical
NM: Do you get sick of people saying,
"Hey, is your sister Allison Wolfe from Bratmobile?"
NM: Thats all going to change
once this interview runs hundreds of thousands of young music
fans will go out and purchase your album and the subsequent press push
will be near-overwhelming. Allison will get asked, Hey, are you
related to Cindy from The Tennessee Twin?
NM: I was just teasing you a bit; it
doesn't sound at all like you're living in Allison's shadow. Its
very cool that you have such broad creative interests, what with the
puppet shows, acting, and music. What's next?
NM: Did you have any acting experience
before Low Self-Esteem Girl? Is it something you'd like to do more of?
NM: I understand you used to be a puppeteer.
How does acting compare to doing puppet shows?
NM: What did you think of Being John
Malkovich? That was the first time I was really conscious of puppeteering
as a real thing that real people do, and Im sure it was the same
for other folks.
NM: Why Canada?
NM: Were there other factors that contributed
to your getting fed up with Olympia? After living here a few years Ive
begun to notice all the bullshit a lot more kids pretending to
be homeless because its hip, faux-activism, snobby pretentious assholes,
junkies . . .
NM: Which band on this year's Yo Yo
schedule are you most excited about? (Other than Tennessee Twin of course.)
NM: Cheesy rock journalism question:
Name five albums you want on a deserted island.
Visit the Yo Yo a Go Go website.
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