Jesse Sykes has a weird voice—raspy but not grouchy, whispery but also commanding. Her yowl is androgynous in the way she can simultaneously channel Janis Joplin and Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk. She’s also no doubt listened to Cat Power’s Covers Record a couple of times: Like Chan Marshall deconstructing “Satisfaction,” she has a tendency to lead her band lurching onward in 3/4 time with her meditative lyrics. And like all of the abovementioned artists, Sykes is both an acquired taste and critic’s darling—though, admittedly, not this critic’s. Granted, Sykes sounds fresh. Her backing band, The Sweet Hereafter, drafts a pitch-perfect imitation of Harvest-era Neil Young (even the sepia-toned liner notes are indebted to that masterpiece), but it’s Sykes’s pipes that set the group apart from the imitative predictability that plagues their alt-country brethren.
Despite the quirky vocals (interestingly enough, Sykes guested on last year’s collaboration between weirdo metal bands Sunn 0))) and Boris), much of Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul is old school. Most of the arranging is by Sykes’s collaborator Phil Wandscher, a veteran of Whiskeytown—the record’s acoustic guitars, harmonicas, swooping strings, and handclaps would be right at home on any early Linda Rondstadt album. “How Will We Know,” the best track on the record, glides by with a Grateful Dead-infused shuffle, then grows into a lush chorus that’s like the end of “Hey Jude” if it were sung by the cast of Hee Haw. Goofy comparisons aside, the real reason that “How Will We Know” is the star of the show is because it’s the song that has the fewest lyrics.
In an interview with Reverb, Sykes mentioned her dissatisfaction with the music industry’s “emotional McCarthyism”—since love of irony is so prevalent, “intense” performers face a wall of scorn from critics and listeners when they should be received as brave and confessional. That may very well be the case, but confessional and emotionally observant writing is like any other kind of writing: less is more. A few less refrains like “Like, love, lust/Sometimes you have to kill/The one you trust” and a few less clichés like “Only music/Sets my soul free” would increase, not diminish, Like, Love‘s intensity. After the 12 tracks that make up this album, I “got used to” Sykes’s peculiar voice. It’s the sentimentality that I could do without.