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Jessica Lea Mayfield. (Courtesy of the artist. )

For Jessica Lea Mayfield, Sometimes Sanity Is The Better Option

Apr 23, 2014 (Fresh Air)

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Jessica Lea Mayfield possesses a delicate singing voice that she likes to contrast with her crunching guitar riffs. For her new album Make My Head Sing..., she's working with drummer Matt Martin and her bassist, producer and husband Jesse Newport to create a roughed-up, often blues-based sound that lends her lyrics vehemence.

You can hear, in the midst of all this rock heaviness, the influence of the bluegrass band Mayfield was a part of when she was growing up. She sings with an unadorned plaintiveness that's very much in the tradition of bluegrass vocalizing. It's the opposite of a conversational style — Mayfield's singing implores, declaims, expresses yearning, hope and a lack of hope. Sometimes her voice and the melody achieve a shimmering beauty, the sound of music coming from far away, floating through your mind, as it does in "Standing in the Sun."

There are moments on Make My Head Sing... that reach back to the sound of rock music made before Mayfield was born. In a song such as "I Wanna Love You," the guitar sound has a psychedelic folk-rock vibration, which animates a vocal that's all intense monotone — it's the kind of singing you heard from 1960s one-hit-wonders like the Standells and the Electric Prunes. Mayfield makes you feel as though she's pouring everything she's got into the song; that when it's through, she'll have nothing left.

Make My Head Sing... is an album of contradictions. It's full of unreliable narrators who sometimes revel in jealousy, willful insanity and drugs even as her voice and the music suggest that sanity is a better option. The music is heavy, but it soars. Her guitar riffs thud and slam, but they maintain a propulsive forward motion. Her voice frequently seems on the verge of getting buried in the mix, but then producer Newport pulls her vocal out and up so that it quivers over the melody. The tension in all these contradictions is what gives Jessica Lea Mayfield's music its blunt power, and its subtlety.

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