Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review of Antigone Rising's "Whiskey & Wine Vol. II"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning.

Review Summary: "It's a drive up a hill it's a drink on a porch/It's the colors and shapes of old victorian doors/It takes a village and what's mine is yours/And we don't need reminding/Not in my town"

Doubtlessly many Sputnik Music readers have never heard of this group. That's unfortunate, as Antigone Rising is a talented band with powerful vocal harmonies, strong songwriting skills and a following that has been built through many years of hard work and constant touring. The core of the band has always been two sisters from Long Island, NY, Cathy and Kristen Henderson. They first achieved renown in 1998 when they won a contest run by Levi's Jeans to earn a spot on the stage of Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair. In 2005, they became the first artists to be promoted in Starbuck's Hear Music Series, selling 450,000 copies of a live album, From the Ground Up, that was exclusively sold in Starbucks stores across the country. The band has a particularly strong following among the LGBT community (and Kristen Henderson has penned a very successful memoir about her marriage to her partner, Sarah Kate Ellis-Henderson, entitled Times Two, Two Women in Love and the Happy Family They Made), and also a strong country music following (with a number of successful videos that have aired on CMT). In their current lineup, their music has evolved to a point where I'd describe them as sounding like an all-female version of The Eagles.

The band has had a number of different lead singers over the years, but with no disrespect meant towards any of their previous vocalists, I'd have to say that their current one, Nini Camps, is the strongest they've ever had. Her voice is not only powerful, but also extremely pleasing. Her first studio album with the band was the excellent 2011 LP 23 Red, followed by the Whiskey & Wine Vol. I EP in 2014. Whiskey & Wine Vol. 2, their most recent recording, was released in 2015.

There are five songs on the EP, and while three of them are in the decent-to-good range, the other two are sublime. "Weed & Wine" is an inoffensive number (unless you're offended by weed, drinking or backseat hanky-panky), but it's a fairly mundane "let's get high and fool around" kind of song, and for me, it's the least interesting song on the album. "Game Changer", the EP's first number, is better. It's based on the true story of a Texas high school girl who successfully fought her school for the right to have her senior "superlative" photo taken showing her holding up a copy of an issue of Time magazine that featured a cover of Kristen Henderson and Sarah Kate Ellis-Henderson in their fight against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It's a gung-ho song, praising the teen as a "game changer" because she was willing to fight for what she believed in. Finally, "I See You", the best song among the first three tracks of Whiskey & Wine Vol. II, is a basic love song that Camps and Kristen Henderson co-wrote with Kristen Hall, one of the founding members of the hugely popular country music band Sugarland.

Now we come to the two songs that take this EP to a whole different level. "Last Time", the last song on the album, is a powerful country-style breakup song. It's essentially a reaction by the song's protagonist to an argument she's just had with her lover. It seems that her significant other was just caught (and not for the first time) checking out another women, and when confronted about it, compounded her offense by brushing the accusation off, turning her back and just walking away. And this woman (the singer) is pissed about it. Country music, and music in general, is awash with songs where someone threatens to leave their lover, but you just know they're going to wimp out and come crawling back. That's not the case here. "Take a good look, look at my face" she practically spits, "Cause this will be the last time/You ever walk away". The song is as potent an ode to regaining one's self respect by ending a poisonous relationship as I've ever heard, and on most albums, this would be the best song. But not here. Because it gets better.

I don't consider myself an overly sentimental person. Cloying movies like The Sound of Music send me running for the bathroom clutching my stomach, and I generally don't do wholesome. But sometimes, if something is sincere, simple, and doesn't overdo it, it can touch even this sheet metal heart. Such is the case with "My Town", my #1 song of the year for 2015. It's a cycle-of-life song co-written by Camps, Kristen Henderson and popular country songwriter and folk singer Lori McKenna. "My Town" is portrayed on the AR website as having been inspired by the town and people where Camps and Henderson currently live, which they describe as "a community coming together in the face of adversity". And it's heart-achingly beautiful.

The song paints the picture of a beach town winding down after the summer, as the "days are getting shorter". There's a pretty little church, and down the block, a honky-tonk bar with a jukebox playing, because, as the singer discloses, "there's something here for saints, and for sinners like me". The song is quiet and straightforward, carried mostly by the vocals and some appealing acoustic guitar. The singer explains to us that "it's not just the memories of those that I've known/Or the ghosts of the lovers I've had" that always bring her back. There's a community here, and a sense of people helping one another. "In my town/We give second chances/We're hopeless romantics like that." By the last verse, the warm weather is coming again, the beach sign has a fresh coat of paint, and once again "days are getting longer". There's nothing fancy about the song; it's not showy or lushly orchestrated. It's just plainspoken and genuine. If ever there was an example of how less can be more, this song is it.

Antigone Rising doesn't tour as much as they used to, but you can still catch them live from time to time, especially on the East Coast of the United States. If you have any fondness for music in the folk/country rock vein, I'd suggest you give them a listen. Whiskey & Wine Vol. II would be a fine place to start.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars