To dissect the 14 songs of The Sweater Set‘s new album Oh Visitor is an arduous task; the album has layers upon layers of detailed sound that peeks out and exposes itself with each new listen. The Washington, D.C. band cites a range of genre influences in this third studio album, from country, to folk, rock, and jazz, also naming an atypical list of talents like Stephen Sondheim (musical theater composer), Joni Mitchell, Rainer Maria Rilke (Austrian poet), and Elliott Smith. But perhaps the best way to identify the roots of their album is to look at the band’s history.
The Sweater set is one part Maureen Andary and one part Sara Curtin. The two musicians spent their teens together in a D.C. church choir, learning how to fine-tune their voices from an early age until they parted ways for college. Years later they reunited in 2008 when Andary was selected as a finalist in a songwriting contest and Curtin went along for the ride. Since 2008 the band has released two full-length records and a live album, developing their sound and harnessing their deft songwriting skills.
The Sweater Set recorded Oh Visitor over the span of two years in the home studios of Curtin, Michael Okusami (Berklee School of Music), Jeff Curtin (Sara’s brother who is in the band Small Black in Brooklyn, NY), and D.C. music maestro Hays Holladay (Bluebrain, The Epochs), who featured the band’s song “Fun & Games” on his 2012 compilation album, Rainbow Arcade.
Oh Vistor is emotionally much deeper and sonically much richer than the band’s previous two studio releases. The album features a total of 16 instruments between the two musicians. Andary explains, “[It] is reflective of our maturing sound as the banjo and electric guitar become new members of our instrument arsenal.” Lyrically, the songs draw from breakups, family crises, gender roles, and addiction, really digging at what it is that makes us human and what it means to feel the emotions humans feel.
The band accomplishes a vocal delivery in the record that lands somewhere between The Watson Twins and Jens Lekman, mixing the former’s vocal technique and the latter’s lyrical honesty. “Oh Visitor is us diving into a more contemplative space and I think it reflects our growth as friends, women, and musicians over the last couple years,” remarks Curtin.
THE BOMBER JACKET is previewing three songs from the group’s April 30 release: “Stupid Flame,” “Valentine’s Day” and “Heartbreaker.”
It is only right that Oh Visitor begins with “Stupid Flame.” Easily the most interesting song on the album due to its rich arrangements, “Stupid Flame” is inspired by the old time Appalachian tune “Sandy River Bell,” from which Andary lifted the clawhammer banjo lick.
“I started writing the song in the March 2011. I was playing Sandy River Belle all the time and wanted to incorporate part of it into a song. At the same time I had my heart set on writing about my obsession with my iPhone–thus prompting lyrics for ‘Stupid Flame,’ ” says Andary. However, the songwriter hit a wall until June 2011, when she endured a breakup that finally sparked the song’s bridge. The musician refers to the bridge as “an inventory of a romantic relationship where [her] unreasonable demands stem from alcoholism. ” She adds, “Even though I’ve been in recovery for a five years, I can still be ‘dry as a bone.’ ”
“Stupid Flame” combines a strong melody and layered vocals with foot stomping and hand claps. The extra glockenspiel bits remind the listener to not take the song too seriously, as the winding banjo jumps in and out and keeps the song moving.
Ukulele and vocals paired bare, “Valentine’s Day” is Curtin’s creation that vividly builds images of romance–cliché and original–as Curtin assesses her love life and relates it all to one particular day of the year. “We recorded it in my bedroom with the lights off, whispering our vocals into the microphone. It’s definitely my most vulnerable song on Oh Visitor, but while the verses are a cry for companionship, I wrote the bridge to remind the listener (and myself) that I’d chosen that solitude,” she explains.
“Valentine’s Day” demonstrates the band’s ability to strip down a song’s instrumentation and bring the listener’s attention back to its basic flow. The track is so simple and so delicate–it brings a great balance to the record that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
It is important to note that the string instrument heard on this vintage-sounding track is an electric six-string John Lennon-style Rickenbacker guitar that belongs to Curtin’s dad. This was the first song the band recorded for the album, and, according to Curtin and Andary, it firmly introduced the electric guitar to their sound.
“The building of this song was definitely a family affair,” says Curtin, whose brother recorded her lead vocals in Brooklyn and whose mother lent her the featured snare and tambourine. Additionally, Hays Holladay spurred the subtle inclusion of the accordion and flute in the song’s third verse. One cannot talk about “Heartbreaker” without mentioning the band’s untainted, constant harmonies throughout the song–vocals so pure and so cleanly recorded–they’re a sincere pleasure to take in.
Curtin shares about the song, “The music and lyrics came together, as they often do with my songwriting. I was at the beginning of a new relationship and wanted to explore both the hopefulness of new love and the probability of that love eventually burning out and running its course. Now having been in this same relationship for nearly two years I find that I have an ongoing and changing relationship to the song, too.”
The Sweater Set is hosting an Oh Vistor near-hometown release show in Rockville, Maryland at Strathmore Mansion for the venue’s Friday Night Eclectic Series on April 26. A New York City gig follows on the album’s release day, April 30, at Rockwood Music Hall. The band will continue touring in May and June with a string of shows from Atlanta, Georgia to Providence, Rhode Island.