Friday morn, just as I began my workday, I clicked play on the latest offering from the sisters Staveley-Taylor, aka Jess, Milly and Emily, aka the Staves. Titled Good Woman, the album features 12 courses of heavenly harmonies and crunchy sundries deep fried with help from fast-order chef (and co-producer) John Congleton, perhaps best known for the sonic stews he’s brewed with Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent. A Zoom meeting interrupted. Then Tyler the Cat needed attention. Then he needed some more. Diane entered our shared den as the final song, “Waiting on Me to Change,” wafted from the speakers. “Is this the Staves?” she asked. “I’d recognize them anywhere.”
I’ve listened to it a few more times since, thankfully with less Zoom and cat distractions. In short, it’s the Staves. Good songs. Great harmonies. Its genesis, I should mention, followed several years of emotional tumult: In 2018, their mother and grandmother passed away within weeks of each other; not long thereafter, Milly ended a serious relationship and moved back to her native England from Minneapolis, where she had been living; and, the following year, Emily gave birth to her first child. And then, of course, there was 2020 – what more needs to be said than that? At the same time, they wanted to push their sound beyond the harmony-laden folk stylings they’re known for.
In an interview with Stereogum that’s well worth the read, as Jess and Milly offer a track-by-track teardown of the album, Jess explains that they began the experimentation long before Congleton entered the picture. “It was actually driven a lot by Milly’s ideas to use ambient recordings. From the beginning I think she was really into that as a thing for the record. So to be able to have the studio recordings with a proper mic, but to incorporate, I guess, a different perspective from a different sonic space. So we had recordings from our iPhones, recordings on field recorders, being outside or just being in a much bigger room that echoed, and we just kind of kept recording anything we found interesting.”
To my ears, one of the more radical songs is “Careful, Kid,” which features a grungy feel and slightly askew vocals. To an extent, it conjures early Pretenders with both its sound and lyrics: “If you know, you know/Well, I never really know/When you’re coming in strong/But you waited too long/All the kicks in ribs/But they can really make you weak/And I’m coming back ‘round/From a five-year rebound.”
Yet, even with such sonic deviations, their phonics give them away. Vocals swoop in and out, join together and drift apart, lingering one below the next. It’s a cool sound. Of course, not all are comfortable with such changes – and for those who long for the old-fogey ways of If I Was, there’s plenty of that here, too. “Satisfied,” for example, would have fit in with the set we saw back in 2017, when they played the World Cafe Live. (That’s where the concert picture comes from.) The other songs would have, too.
Likewise, the acoustic splendor of “Waiting on Me to Change,” which closes the album, is exquisite. In that Stereogum piece, Jess says that “It’s not a defiant, big drumroll ending. It’s like by that point I think we’ve exhausted all our options in a way. We’ve said so much that it’s kind of going back to those themes of working on yourself, of failure, of trying – embracing imperfections that you have and acknowledging them and saying, ‘I’m not going to change for anyone else other than myself.’ But kind of checking yourself and saying, ‘I know I probably should, but I’m only gonna do it when I’m ready.’”
As a whole, as I said above, it’s the Staves. Good songs. Great harmonies. I’d add that the ambient additions accent each track’s mood and never distract. It’s also not as drastic a stylistic departure as, say, Trans was for Neil Young. If anything, it’s a furtherance. Give it a listen and you’ll listen to it again, guaranteed.
The track list: