Jessica Lea Mayfield – Tell Me (Nonesuch/Warner) CD REVIEW

October 8, 2014

Tell Me is, in many ways, a brilliant record. But there’s a big caveat there for this reviewer. In fact, I’m riven with dilemma.
The thing is, Mayfield’s whole schtick is encapsulated in her vocals, which are the sound of cultivated world-weariness, at the great old age of 21. It’s a voice that comes across plain and almost devoid of nuance, which means that there are a few instant points of reference, namely the Cowboy Junkies and Hope Sandoval/Mazzy Star.
That’s a good thing, in many ways. There are too many swooping, multi-octave divas in this world, and plain and direct (and just a little laconic) is something to be valued, especially when you’ve got a producer like Dan Auerbach on board. The Black Keys this is not, but it reverberates with the same kind of larger-than-life analogue sound, which makes Tell Me almost impossible not to sit back and enjoy, all the way through.
What Auerbach does here is pure genius: Somehow, he puts the focus on both the voice AND the instrumental backing, without detracting from either, and somehow the net effect is still minimalistic. The great thing about this is that even if you aren’t quite convinced by Mayfield’s voice, or lyrics, or persona, you can still focus on the music, which is recorded in such a fashion as to be very involving and, for us audiophile nerds, sonically rewarding.
That backing is great, and remarkably diverse, and is capable of generating a sound that isn’t quite country, and isn’t quite blues, and isn’t quite pop, and isn’t quite soul, but isn’t some quasi-fusion either. So whether its rocking out or fashioning some ambient drift for one of the softer pieces, it all sounds cohesive. It’s an ADVENTUROUS sound, without being experimental for the sake of it, and it’s compelling.
So, what’s my problem, then? Well, Mayfield is being projected as this creature who is peering into the dark abyss of humankind’s twisted dance with sex and death. In truth, she’s 21 (and yes, I know I said it once already) which doesn’t in itself mean she hasn’t experienced some heavy stuff in her short life, but I can’t see the depth in her lyrics. In fact, give these songs a pop production and her vocal presentation a dash of energy, and they would start to sound closer to Lily Allen than they are to Lucinda Williams.
That’s okay, but I’m uncomfortable with songs that pretend they’re deeper than they are, and Mayfield, it seems to me, uses her sexuality as a magnet for horny music fans, not as something to genuinely interrogate through song.
Is there really anything wrong with being cute and 21 years old and writing songs about falling in and out of love (and bed) at the drop of a hat? No, not really, but it doesn’t make it profound, either.
But that’s not my main point of contention with Mayfield. The biggest stumbling block to allowing myself to be seduced by this album was her voice, which one moment sounds perfectly poised and unaffected, and at the next turn comes dangerously close to being flat. Now, Leonard Cohen can get away with that, because he has grain in his voice; Mayfield, on the other hand, depends on pitch and poise to get the message of her otherwise characterless voice across to the paying public.
Perhaps I’ll find myself giving in and getting swept up on further listening. Perhaps the songs will grow, and the more I listen, the more right her voice will sound.
I would encourage Witchdoctor readers to take a listen, and decide for themselves. If nothing else, the terrific audio quality will prove gratifying. GARY STEEL

MUSIC = 3.5


Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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