The Stevens Sisters,
Little By Little
(Rounder, 2002)

Beth and April Stevens' second album, Little By Little, displays a quality that should ensure lasting success. The Stevens Sisters do not follow any one convention, blending and blurring the defining lines between country, bluegrass, rock and mountain folk. April and Beth are equally skilled, whether singing or playing, and the album deftly balances lovelorn ballads and ballsy bluegrass, defying facile categorisation.

The CD opens with the punchy, foot-tapping title song, a confident and catchy start to the selection. The vocal styling of both sisters is strongly country, and more than a little derivative of the distinctive throat warble used by Dolly Parton, though Beth and April have more mellifluous tones. The sisters' voices harmonise very well, particularly evident in their smooth balladic version of Lynyrd Skynard's "Tuesday's Gone." Their father, Douglas, adds subtle depth to the harmonies on all tracks. They are accompanied by superb line-up of musicians on stringed instruments, particularly the essential Gary Davis on guitar and sometimes banjo. April is accomplished on fiddle, mandolin and mandola, and Beth is likewise adept on dobrobanjo; having worked their way up in the family bluegrass band, this multi-talented duo are not new to the music scene, and their credentials are presented with gusto on this album.

"Lonesome Wind" is a lovely atmospheric track, with April leading, and Beth harmonising and playing dobrobanjo; the finger-picking adds a delicate poignancy to the song. The strutting, swaying accompaniment to "Yours In Tennessee" lifts the lovelorn lyrics, preventing a slippery descent into maudlin realms. The clarity of the vocals over the moody, bluesy bass and soaring fiddle in "Love Every Time" is a absolute delight. It reminded me slightly of K.D. Lang and the Reclines' "Pullin' Back The Reins," but when I played that track, it paled by comparison -- something I never thought I'd say of K.D.!

My least favourite song is the collaboration with Parton on her composition "I'll Never Say Goodbye," which, when compared to the rest, overly drags out the notes on the heartstrings. Parton's vocals do not quite evoke the word "harmony," retaining too much volume and independence, thereby breaking into the effortless balance of the Stevens. The next track quickly erases this disappointment, with a stomping good tempo, the accompaniment pacing Beth's lead vocals like a locomotive rattling along tracks beside a sleek sports car; instrumental riffs highlight the astounding skills of the musicians, particularly the devilishly nimble fingerpicking. "Those Words We Said" had me reaching for the replay button the instant the music faded -- several times!

On the strength of this CD, I'm off to search out their previous release, Sisters, convinced I've missed out by not hearing them before! Little By Little is an essential for fans of country, and should be given a try by tired cynics who tar all country singers with the same old brush -- the Stevens sisters might just be able to encourage a few conversions. Just two words of warning, if playing this when driving; be prepared for curious looks as you sing along with gusto, and watch your speed during the 10th track!

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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