Tattletale Saints – How Red is the Blood – Endearing duo bring classic American music sounds to life

I was about 10 seconds into the opening track when I knew this was an album I would enjoy. The Tattletale Saints have a wonderful ability to generate endearing, comfortable songs that provide the perfect soundtrack for life. This album is smart, crisp, and often cozy. A lot of people will find these two familiar because of their impressive ability to master a variety of styles.

The opener “Kathleen” is about those butterfly-inducing days of young love and, appropriately, forbidden love. The vocal harmonies are excellent. The way the melody effortlessly waxes and wanes makes the complicated song feel very easy and nostalgic.

“Traces of You” has more exceptional vocal blending. It’s evident that Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan have experience singing together. I hate to keep using the term “comfortable” to describe the sound, but that’s exactly what it is. This track feels like the 60s in all the right ways. It’s romantic (“I see traces of you everywhere…”) and feels like you’ve heard it before, even though you probably haven’t.

Unlike the synergy of the Civil Wars, the Tattletale Saints have a connection that’s a bit more like Mandolin Orange. They seem to click and their voices blend very well. The swing track “Doctor, Doctor” really highlights the incredible songwriting of Winstanley. McGowan’s bass work and vocal blending highlights Winstanley’s truly exquisite pen work. The minor chord chromatics show evidence of plenty of jazz experience. Taken together, this plea to the doctor for a prescription for feelings of love, is a smile-inducing, feel good song. Think “Love Potion Number 9” with more jazz, updated (kind of) for the 21st century. It’s great.

“How Ready is the Blood from a Broken Heart” is a staggering, artful piece. It reminds me of something that could have come out of the Milk Carton Kids’ repertoire. Classic Americana picking with a nice western flair, it’s a wonderful song. Arguably the best track on the album, it brings together all of the strengths of the band in a classic songwriting vein and allows the vocal harmonies to transcend. It’s a fantastic performance expressing deeply the paint of a broken heart.

“Fell Upon the Fields” has an agricultural, rural feel to it. The instrumentation (banjo and mandolin especially) make the sound work. The vocals are great, as usual. “Complicated Man” has deep political and ethical implications to it. Spending most of the track in a minor key, the sound is intentionally unsettling (and it works).

“Jessica on Prairie Legs” begins with some superbly relaxing acoustic guitar work, then ushers in strings for an easy, relaxing sound. The following “Molly” is a sort of bluesy love song, complete with harmonica. The thing about this track that impresses me is that it reminds me a bit of Jim Croce, but without the grit. It’s a soft, easy going take on a dream of running away with his girl. (Do you see why I keep calling them endearing and comfortable?)

Then “Hank” is another beautiful fingerpicking song that fits most appropriately with roots country music. The folks playing this song could sit center stage at the Ryman. It’s about Hank Williams who “taught a million people how to sing.” It amazes me how these two New Zealanders seem to get classic American music more than many of my fellow Americans. I’d especially like to compliment Vanessa McGowan on this track because classic country music harmonies are more difficult than they sound – they’re easy to get wrong, but she nails them here. Start to finish, this is one of the better roots songs I’ve heard in a while. I wonder what ole Hank would say about that line, “Jesus must have taught that boy to sing.” It’s a great line.

The last song is a cover of “At Last,” the Etta James classic. Of course they’ve put their own spin on it, keeping it softly jazzy, but with an acoustic string instrumentation. It’s soft, romantic, and beautiful. It’s the best kind of cover, putting a unique twist on a very familiar tune. Bravo.

What strikes me most about this album is that it’s so ridiculously versatile. Being able to write a song in any of these styles – jazz, roots, Americana – is a challenge itself. To be able to fill an album with these variety of styles shows not only remarkable training but an incredible creative connection. I’m looking forward to wearing this album out and can’t wait to hear what else they write. Sometimes I encourage bands to find one good thing and do it well, but the Tattletale Saints are good at a variety of styles. Fans of Americana broadly speaking need to give these New Zealanders a chance – they get the soul of “our” music. This is a solid album in that direction.

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