The Grammy award winning duo Indigo Girls have sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over the span of almost 3 decades as national recording artists. The duo broke into the national spotlight in the early 90s with hits such as “Closer to Fine,” and “Galileo,” and has since built a fervent, devoted fan base through constant touring and dedication to a number of social and environmental causes.
Beauty Queen Sister is the fourth Indigo Girls album released on IG Recordings, the independent label that Ray and Saliers launched after putting out nine albums on Epic Records and one (2006’s widely acclaimed Despite Our Differences) on Hollywood Records. While the loss of major-label spending power might cripple less accomplished artists, both Ray and Saliers find that their tightened budget actually feeds the album-making process. “Nowadays we need to record much more quickly, so there’s not time to belabor every little decision like we did in our earlier years,” says Ray. “We just put our heads down and throw all our emotion into it and it’s magical—the heart rules our performance more than the head.”
That heart-over-head approach is no doubt suited to the material on Beauty Queen Sister, a stunning 13-song selection that touches on topics as disparate as the 2011 Egyptian revolution (in Ray’s plaintive “War Rugs,” featuring guest vocals by singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche), the ins and outs of the music industry (“Making Promises,” a defiant, guitar-driven banger also authored by Ray), and the recent massive deaths of Arkansas red-winged blackbirds (“Able to Sing,” in which Saliers cleverly swipes a lyric from the English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” to lend the track a slightly whimsical feel). Tackling such weighty matters as tenderly as each intimate love song, Beauty Queen Sister grips from the get-go and crests at the epic “Yoke.” With its centerpiece of hauntingly urgent strings (supplied by violinist Luke Bulla) and a gorgeously mournful vocal performance by Ray, this spellbinding slow-burner makes for a masterful closing track.
As for the love songs, Beauty Queen Sister never shies away from lavish expressions of sweet infatuation. On “We Get To Feel It All,” for instance, Saliers deftly captures what she calls “our tendency to dramatize the bigness of love.” Featuring honey-tinged backup vocals by the Shadowboxers (an Atlanta-based all-male trio), the breezy midtempo treasure is packed with lovelorn poetry (“You’re open like a book or shut like shell/But if I hold you to my ear I can hear the whole world”). Another Saliers homage to the sublimity of love, “Birthday Song” begins with soulfully hummed harmonies and expands into a humble meditation elegantly accented by Carol Issacs’s delicate piano. And on the album’s opener, Ray offers an “aching, lonely, dark-gravel-road kind of song.” Subdued yet sultry, “Share The Moon” complements heartsick lyrics like “I’m gonna love you till it works” with gently rumbling drums provided by Brady Blade.
Woven throughout Beauty Queen Sister is a collection of songs that self-consciously romanticize the simplicity of days gone by. Saliers’s lilting, mandolin-kissed “Feed And Water The Horses” laments the technology-fueled loss of pleasures once taken for granted (“the smell of ink on paper and its morning pull”), while the joyful “John”
pays loving tribute to a neighbor who embodies the pastoral life and “brings the country to me/The girl from the city.” Perhaps the album’s most raucous moment, the title track struts and swaggers as Ray depicts a wilder world inspired in part by the doomed innocence of the central characters in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (“And those street kids and beauty queens—they don’t stand a chance/So hang on tight”).
Rounding out the record are “Gone” (a sweeping, cinematic song that Saliers says was influenced by Elton John’s production), “Mariner Moonlighting” (wistfully inspired by Ray’s visit to a centuries-old seaside music hall in New England), and “Damo” (another Ray contribution, which owes its sprightly Celtic sound to Eamonn de Barra’s whistles and flute and to the full-throated backing vocals of Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey).
The record’s stellar guest musicians are essential to shaping the sound throughout Beauty Queen Sister, according to Ray and Saliers. “Many of our players are top-notch Nashville talent—you just don’t get any better than that,” Saliers says. Noting the dynamic drumming style of Brady Blade and the smooth bass grooves of Frank Swart and Viktor Krauss, Saliers adds that the high-energy ensemble of featured artists played a key role in carrying out the “organic approach we wanted to take on this album.” Equally invaluable was producer Peter Collins, with whom the Indigo Girls worked on 1992’s Rites of Passage and 1994’s Swamp Ophelia. “When we were younger we held so fast to our own ideas, but working with Peter this time around we were much more relaxed about having it be a true collaborative effort,” says Saliers, noting that Collins excels at “hearing where there needs to be space within the song.” For further help in fine-turning Beauty Queen Sister, the Indigo Girls turned to Trina Shoemaker (a mixer and sound engineer who’s previously recorded Queens of the Stone Age, Emmylou Harris, and Sheryl Crow). “Trina’s a little bit of a wizard,” says Ray. “When she mixes songs, she gives them a fullness that makes them epic—even when it’s something very simple.”
Decades into their career, the Indigo Girls still amaze conventional pundits with their ability to grow and thrive no matter what the state of the music industry is at any given point. Saliers and Ray began performing together in high school, transferred their honest, urgent performing style onto the stages of countless small clubs, then saw their public profile take off with the 1989 release of their self-titled breakthrough (an album that included the first hit, “Closer To Fine,” and went on to win Best Contemporary Folk Recording at the 1990 Grammys).
The duo’s constant touring, as well as staunch dedication to a number of social and environmental causes, has earned them a fervidly devoted following over the years. So many artists who launched their careers in the late 1980s have slipped from our collective memory. In contrast, the Indigo Girls stand tall, having earned the lasting respect and devotion of a multi-generational audience which continues to experience their creative evolution in the studio and on stage.
For Ray and Saliers, Beauty Queen Sister—like each new musical endeavor they embark on—offers a fresh opportunity for exploration and discovery. “We really work hard to not lean on any tried-and-true path in making our albums,” says Ray. “So when it comes to writing new songs and working with different musicians, every record feels like a completely different adventure for us.”
For the Indigo Girls, that adventure may take the form of an adrenaline-fueled live CD or a warm, reflective holiday album or a collection of songs that can veer from raucous to intimate in the blink of an eye. No matter where their creative journey takes them, they hold out a hand to their listeners and we get to feel it all.
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts
Saturday April 19, 2014
Doors 7 p.m. Show 8 p.m.
On Sale: Friday, January 31, 2014 at 10 a.m.
Tickets Available: All Rams Head Box Offices and www.ramsheadonstage.com