With her limited vocal range and relatively flat affect, Ohio's Jessica Lea Mayfield isn't the most compelling singer, her voice often recalling the nasal drone of Cat Power at her mopiest. But over the course of Tell Me, her second full-length album, Mayfield emerges as a singer-songwriter with a powerful and distinct voice. Her complex songwriting, full of clever turns of phrase and slanted observations, makes it clear how she first caught the attention of the Black Keys's Dan Auerbach, who produced the record with a sure hand.
Auerbach frames Mayfield's songs in a dense, bluesy take on Americana that's far more progressive and ambitious than what so many of that genre's singer-songwriters have offered of late. "Somewhere in Your Heart" is an effectively eerie meditation on the bleak result of unreciprocated love, with piano chords in a deep bass register and heavily distorted electric guitar riffs making for a haunted sound as Mayfield remarks, "I'd rather die young and be forgotten/Than to live and grow old loving you." The song recalls the American Gothic storytelling of Neko Case in both form and content, and both "Sometimes at Night" and the minor-key "Run Myself into the Ground" hold up to the same lofty comparisons.
Mayfield isn't always so grim, though, and opener "I'll Be the One that You Want Someday" and "Our Hearts Are Wrong" are snarky and shrewd. Auerbach lays down a simple acoustic blues figure on the latter, playing off Mayfield's frank assessment of a would-be lover: "You're intimidating as all hell/But I ain't scared of you/I know how you work." She takes the piss out of another relationship on "Grown Man," dismissing the title character with a flippant "I'd give anything as you're sitting there/With your legs crossed and no clothes on/To know what you're thinking."
Mayfield is a smart, self-aware writer and she's found a producer in Auerbach who knows how to accentuate her exceptional skills with words and moods. Mayfield sells each of her songs well enough, but it's also easy to imagine a superior vocalist like Case, Kasey Chambers, or Allison Moorer elevating the songs on Tell Me even further. That limitation keeps the album from being something truly extraordinary, but Mayfield does offer a refreshingly novel point of view that makes Tell Me worth a listen.