The Secret Sisters “Mind, Man, Medicine”

New West Records, 2024

Sisters from Alabama stay close to home for their fifth offering that sees a shift in perspective with an album immersed in the present.

artwork for The Secret Sisters album "Mind, Man, Medicine"Four years on from the release of the Grammy-nominated album ‘Saturn Return’ and a whole lot has changed in the lives of one of the finest harmony duos of the twenty-first century, namely The Secret Sisters. Having burst onto the music scene with their debut album back in 2010, the siblings Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle have experienced the full gamut and fickleness of the music business from which a level of frustration and anger would often seep into their songs that regularly encompassed much of life and love’s thorniest aspects but always delivered with the most exquisite of vocal arrangements. Now motherhood brings a whole new dimension to their writing, transforming much of the previous angst into a new found sense of self reliance and equanimity, their lyrics now imbued with the hard earned complexities of commitment, compassion as well as self preservation.

Whereas their previous two albums were produced by Brandi Carlile with Tim and Phil Hanseroth at Carlile’s home studio near Seattle, this time around the sisters, understandably, have chosen to stay closer to home, using the historic Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. That’s not all that’s different, as having gained a level of confidence from directing the sound for their last record, they clearly felt the time was right to step up and take control of production duties along with John Paul White, formerly of Grammy winning duo Civil Wars, and Ben Tanner, who cites Alabama Shakes among his previous collaborations. Tanner’s involvement negates any surprise in seeing Alabama Shakes Zac Cockrell supplying bass along with Parker McAnnally who also plays dulcimer, while the presence of legendary multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell is an undoubted plus. Elsewhere Jeremy Gibson and Ken Lewis share drum and percussion duties with Austin Motlow supplying synthesizer and electric guitar.

‘Mind, Man, Medicine’ opens with ‘Space’, that immediately captures the sense of calm and peace that emanates throughout the album here, with its hypnotically sparse intro that expands to create a psychedelic ambience cocooning the lyrical theme of love in all its guises. Matters of the heart lie at the core of the following track ‘Paperweight’ where the focus turns to commitment and staying anchored, the musical arrangement full of country sensibilities highlighted by some wonderful fiddle playing from Campbell, while shades of Christine McVie’s work with Fleetwood Mac echo within the melody of the chorus. Third up is one of the album’s many highlights ‘If The World Was A House’, which looks upon the planet as a more divided place since the pandemic and asks the disturbing question “if the world was on fire, would we just put it out or let it burn higher.” Here again the minimalistic approach enhances the narrative, while the individual singing, so encouraged by Carlile on the last album, continues to be a winning formula that in turn emphasis the wonderful harmonies, effortlessly and achingly sublime.

Long-time friend Ray Lamontagne joins the sisters on the following number ‘All The Ways’ that conjures up all the classic R&B tradition of the legendary studio, with the rhythm section delivering the perfect lazy, behind-the-beat groove that underpins this soulful slowburn number with a vocal delivery reminiscent of the great Bonnie Raitt. Elsewhere, ‘Planted’, a solo write by Slagle again takes full advantage of the individual voices while ‘I Need You’, a co-write with pianist K S Rhodes incorporates the string section of the Fame Studio Orchestra, both songs lyrically immersed in the chaos and calm of their new-found world. However, not every track is wrapped up in the newfound challenges of the here and now. ‘Never Walk Away’, turns the spotlight on a fractured friendship, its narrative more unsettling, the ambience deliberately less comfortable, the angst, a regular feature on previous albums, here feels all the more caustic due to its infrequency. ‘Bear With Me’ lifts the tempo with its brushed snare and lilting guitar lines supplying both the warmth and the juxtaposition for a song that deals with the sense of loss of identity so prevalent amongst many new mothers.

The line that forms the title of this new album is found in the track ‘Same Water’, written post-pandemic on a wet afternoon in Nashville, this is another highlight that tries to make sense of the different ways people choose to find healing, its twangy guitar and walking bass line offering an uncluttered accompaniment to the soulful vocal delivery. This is followed by ‘I Can Never Be Without You’, a song that exalts all the singular joy and conditional love that only comes with parenthood, the narrative capturing so much of what this album is about “I remember when I felt the change, I can’t go back to who I was before.” The page has turned, a new chapter begun, and as Slagle takes the lead on the final track ‘I’ve Got Your Back’, a maternal love song of reassurance, you begin to fully appreciate the journey that Rogers and her sister have travelled across this previously uncharted emotional terrain. It is clear that this album could not have been recorded five years ago, and it is just as apparent that they could never go back and deliver another ‘Saturn Return’. However, though the landscape may have altered, the vocals and the songwriting are more powerful and emotive than at any point in their career and it is therefore no exaggeration to suggest that ‘Mind, Man Medicine’, may well be their best album yet.

9/10
9/10

About Graeme Tait 126 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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Alan Peatfield

Let’s just cut to the chase here. I do disagree with you Graeme.This is not a “may well be their best album yet” … it is a “definitely their best album yet!!”
As always, very well written with your usual extensive background info.
Thanks.