By Eleni P. Austin
“Fuck Barbies, I gotta play music.” That’s a direct quote from a seven year old Jessica Lea Mayfield, right after she watched a video of the Foo Fighters’ song, “My Hero.”
By age eight, the Kent, Ohio native had gotten her wish. She was playing and touring with her family’s Bluegrass band, One Way Rider. Learning some easy guitar chord progressions 11 year old Jessica began writing her own songs.
Ten years ago, when she was 15, Mayfield recorded a homemade EP, White Lies. She only pressed 100 copies, but miraculously, one reached fellow Ohioan, Dan Auerbach.
As a guitarist and vocalist, Dan Auerbach was just beginning to make a name for himself in The Black Keys. A Garage Blues two-piece, consisting of Auerbach and drummer, Pat Carney, the duo had already released released three full-length albums and an EP.
Auerbach produced Mayfield’s 2008 debut, Blasphemy So Heartfelt and her 2011 follow-up, Tell Me, on Nonesuch Records. Mayfield’s debut was full of lovelorn regret and recriminations.
Her sophomore effort was more expansive but remarkably world-weary for a 22 year old. Her vocal style created a honied dissonance that felt like a mash-up of June Carter Cash and Exene Cervenka, front-woman from seminal L.A. Punk band, X.
In the three years since Mayfield released Tell Me, she married bassist, Jesse Newport and left Nonesuch for Dave Matthews’ boutique label, ATO Records. She has returned with a new album, Make My Head Sing….
This time round, Jesse Newport is handling production chores while the couple plays all the instruments with assistance from drummer Matt Martin.
The album kicks into gear with the coiled menace of “Oblivious.” Chunky, downstroke power chords ride roughshod over a wheezy tempo and Mayfield’s laconic vocals. Her delivery is nonchalant but sinister…“I could kill with the power in my mind, but I’m a good humanitarian.”
On two tracks, “I Wanna Love You” and “Party Drugs,” she tackles harrowing themes. The melody of the former is built around spiraling guitar fillips that recalls both Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and Devo’s “Gut Feeling.”
Here, Mayfield adopts the P.O.V. of a stalker…”I’m sitting outside your house, watching what you do, I see you open the mail I have sent to you/I’m insane I’m gonna love you, you’re gonna find this out.” The chilling tenor of her voice is at odds with the playful tune.
On the latter song, Mayfield’s vocals feel spectral and other-worldly. The music is dour and desolate as she soberly recounts her own flirtation with addiction…“Party drugs I’ve gotten used to, without them I’m bored and tired….”
Although her first two albums hewed closely to a Country/Folk blueprint, Make My Head Sing… pledges allegiance to Mayfield’s childhood crush: Grunge. This is especially evident on “Pure Stuff,” “Unknown Big Secret” and “No Fun.”
“Pure Stuff” is anchored by a kick-drum beat and sludgey tilt-a-whirl riffage. Mayfield’s vocals soar over the loud verses and quiet choruses.
“Unknown Big Secret” blends fluttery guitar chords over a pounding back-beat. Mayfield addresses marital discord with this sophisticated couplet…”You hate my childlike qualities, I hate the meanie in you.”
Finally “No Fun” is a Nihilist’s delight! Over pin-wheeling guitar pyrotechnics, everything sucks and nothing has meaning…”I never want nothing, cause everything makes me mad.”
Mayfield takes another stylistic left turn, veering from ‘90s Grunge to ‘80s Indie Rock on “Standing In The Sun” and “Do I Have The Time.”
“Standing In The Sun” shimmers like a lost Cocteau Twins song. Mayfield’s dreamy vocals ricochet between sunburst guitar licks and a gentle keyboard wash. “Do I Have The Time” echoes the ghostly Goth of Siouxsie And The Banshees.
The album closes with the slow-burn Psychedelia of “Seein’ Starz.” Here Mayfield is in the grip of a toxic love, but she kinda likes it.
Make My Heart Sing… is a great album, but it doesn’t satisfy the way “Tell Me” did. It’s nice that Jessica Lea Mayfield has the freedom to channel her inner Tammy Wynette on one song and acknowledge her devotion to Stone Temple Pilots on the next. Maybe the next album will manage a more seemless synthesis of her myriad influences.