Artist: The Mastersons
Album: Transient Lullaby
Label: Red House
Release Date: 05.19.2017
The Mastersons’ debut on Red House signals a shift in sound, as the husband and wife duo move even deeper into gorgeous harmony in a quieter, albeit slightly darker, setting. This is only their third album but The Mastersons have been with us for a while now, primarily serving as The Dukes, backing Steve Earle when he is touring as well as several Earle studio albums. Chris Masterson has played in Son Volt and contributed for several other artists, as has the versatile Eleanor Whitmore, who plays about every stringed instrument except banjo here.
The Mastersons were both born and raised in Texas, formed their alliance with Earle and delivered their first two albums when living in Brooklyn; they now call Los Angeles home. Chris and Eleanor are on the road frequently anyway, whether performing their own shows or in support of Earle. Chris, the guitarist, says, “A lot of what we listen to when we have some rare time off is what we consider late-night music. The last record was bright and jangly and we wanted this one to be vibes and dark. A lot of the stuff is very performance-based and not at all fussed with. We’ve grown so much more comfortable in our skin that really weren’t trying to sound like anyone other than ourselves this time around.” Eleanor points to growth in songwriting. “Part of the time we’re writing on a tour bus with Steve Earle, and the bar for poetry is pretty high when you’re within earshot of one of the greatest songwriters alive.”
It’s their vocal harmonies, two voices perfectly suited for each other, that draw you in as well as the musicianship, especially Whitmore’s string arrangements and Chris’s dazzling guitar work. They are joined by George Reiff on bass, David Boyle who adds considerable textures through a variety of keyboards, and four other musicians who contribute on select tracks. Sometimes the two sing duets in unison while at other times each leads with the other, joining in on the choruses. Couples can relate to more than a few of these tunes, especially “Fight” (“I don’t wanna fight with anyone else but you”) and “This Isn’t How It Was Supposed to Go” (“I’m getting too old for this”). Other tunes are similarly themed but focus more directly on broken relationships. Somehow the two lovers in the opener, “Perfect,” find some optimism when facing difficulties. The acoustic fingerpicking on “Highway 1” serves as the perfect backdrop for the twisting, turning road that’s a metaphor for an emotional breakup.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find cracks of resiliency and optimism in the songs. Chris puts it this way, “As we look at the world political landscape, global warming, a refugee crisis and the uncertain times we’re all living in, rather than lose hope, we look to each other.” In one sense, the aura of the album reminds me of the early work of Richard and Linda Thompson, although not as dark and bitterly acrimonious. The sheer joy that Chris and Eleanor have in singing together allows the listener to float above the darkness below.