Beauty Queen Sister

Beauty Queen Sister, the 14th studio album from Indigo Girls, opens with “Share the Moon.” Its rolling R&B groove is highlighted by bass and subtle percussion. A gentle violin line weaves in as Amy Ray takes lead vocals, with Emily Salier’s harmonies floating at a higher register. It’s a beautiful, rhythmic ballad that sets the tone for a collection of mostly mellow, thoughtful songs. As on all their albums, Amy Ray and Emily Salier share songwriting duties, each taking the lead on her own compositions, while the partner blending in gorgeous harmonies. Recorded in Nashville the album reflects the duo’s country leanings and features a number of Nashville’s finest musicians. The producer, Peter Collins, is an old pal, having produced Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia in the early ‘90s.

Past recordings have established Ray as the rocker, the lover of aggressive guitar and confrontational lyrics. Salier is the folksinger with the heart of gold, creator of love ballads that ache with confessional angst. Salier doesn’t pull any surprises on Beauty Queen Sister. Her songs are consistent with her past work. “John” is a storyteller’s yarn about a Native American neighbor who teaches the city girl how to acclimate to country living. “We Get To Feel It All” sounds like a James Taylor composition. It’s pretty but doesn’t draw attention to itself. Salier’s best song here is “Birthday Song” which encompasses all the things that the writer does best. Acoustic guitar tiptoes around the vocals, piano punctuates the drama. Salier’s voice is as gorgeous as it ever has been, barely holding back pools of emotion as she attempts to write a birthday card to someone who’s impact cannot be expressed in prose. “We Get To Feel It All” is highlighted by backing vocals from The Shadowboxers, an Atlanta-based band.

Beauty Queen Sister’s real surprise is Amy Ray. Her songs head in directions that are unpredictable and express sweet sentiment that we haven’t heard from her before. “Share the Moon” finds her vulnerable and terribly romantic. “Mariner Moonlighting” features a jazzy 2-step swing. Ray’s most interesting track is also the most political. “War Rugs” is a statement about Egypt’s revolution. Vibraphone, banjo, stand-up bass, violin, and mandolin meld into a rumbling rhythm, as Ray sings “I want to understand/the soul it takes to stand/For something bigger than myself.” “Damo” is Ray’s dive into Celtic music, with John Reynolds on the Celtic drum, Eamonn De Barra on whistles and flutes, and Damien Dempsey on vocals. Ray does through in a couple of tracks that rock, including the title track and the single “Making Promises.”

All tracks are raised by the level of musicianship. Violinist Luke Bulla, a member of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band and a member of WPA, in particular, is superb as he appears on all but two tracks. Alison Brown is featured on banjo, Vicktor Krauss on bass, and Jim Brocks percussion rumbles through the record. Lucy Wainwright Roche is guest vocalist on “War Rugs.” Beauty Queen Sister wraps with Ray’s “Yoke,” a contemplative ballad that builds tension with a crying violin and tensely paced accordion. It’s a reminder that Ray and Salier continue to grow as musicians who make relevant music.

Rosemary Welsch (afternoon host)