Two for the road

The Watson Twins escape the shadows

OLD SOULS: The first listen feels more like a well-worn slab from your vinyl collection than a new recording.

Most music fans discovered the Watson Twins — 31-year-old identical sisters Leigh and Chandra — via their backing vocal appearance on Rabbit Fur Coat, the 2006 solo debut from Jenny Lewis. On the spooky, Shining-esque cover, the six-foot-tall siblings — statuesque, onyx-haired, and dressed in powder blue — flanked the diminutive Rilo Kiley singer. Inside, their preternatural, church-choir-trained harmonies nudged Lewis’s tunes into the realm of the sublime — luminous wing women aiding their leader in nailing many an alt-country target.

These days, the Kentucky-bred Twins — who’ve been a mainstay on the Los Angeles indie-rock scene since moving there more than a decade ago — are flying solo, trying to escape the shadow of the rapturously received Rabbit Fur Coat and create a different kind of magic with their full-length bow, Fire Songs (Vanguard), which arrives two years after debut EP Southern Manners. “Fall,” the magnetic third track, encompasses most of what makes their music so engaging: the inviting, slightly husky timbre of their voices — like a combination of Linda Thompson and Beth Orton — and, of course, those heavenly harmonies. Simple, rootsy melodies are fashioned out of acoustic strums, piano plinks, mournful cello, subtle percussion, and distant pedal steel, with the recurring bite of moody electric guitar to scuff things up.

The rest of the album (co-produced by one-time Sebadoh drummer Russ Pollard) ain’t too shabby either, from the jaunty “Map to Where You Are,” with its Polynesian sway, to the torchy midnight-pop stunner “Only You” to a countrified cover of the Cure’s “Just like Heaven,” with harmonica where some of the synths should be. Across its 11 tracks, Fire Songs exudes warmth and richness. Even the first listen feels more like diving into a well-worn slab from your vinyl collection than a brand-new recording.

“We’re all fans of classic rock and a lot of older music, so we all wanted there to be that organic vibe,” Chandra says over the phone from her home in LA. “It was important to us to make it so it wasn’t too polished or slick, so it sounded like you could really hear the room, you can hear the air, you can hear the heads of the tape machine. Those are the sounds I’m drawn to, things that make it sound like it’s living.”

Writing individually and then bringing the compositions to the rest of the band (the line-up for Fire Songs has a half-dozen musicians, including Pollard), the Watsons drew on a batch of songs they’d been road-testing for much of 2007 and a handful of experimentations once they got into the studio. Although a tune or two plays as if it could have come from the Rabbit Fur Coat sessions, much of Fire Songs is markedly different.

“We didn’t really set out to defy expectations or anything like that,” says Chandra. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, were you influenced by your work with Jenny?’ And I’d say that every musical experience that you have feeds into what you draw on. But I think Jenny and Leigh and I have very similar record collections, so there are definitely similarities. I do think there are some people who were expecting us to make something a little more bluegrassy or gospel or something, but our goal is to make something that incorporates all the different genres that have influenced us in our lives — underground rock, jazz, pop, blues, country — and then try to find our own voice within that.” With Fire Songs, the Watson Twins are on their way.

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