One of my greatest musical loves from the latter half of the '90s is a record called No Skin by an Anglo-American, female duo called the Dear Janes. No Skin (the Dear Janes' second album) came out with little fanfare on Geffen Records, at which point I raved about it, then reviewed the pair as openers for Robyn Hitchcock in concert (raving about them there, too), but then Geffen dropped the ball with them (as they did with so many other artists of the era) and I assumed that that was that.
But it wasn't, hallelujah, and now the Dear Janes have got a new album called Skirt out, this time on their own Sore Thumb label. Skirt finds the Janes' Barbara Marsh (the American one) and Ginny Clee (the Brit) singing and plinking stringed thingies with aplomb, occasionally backed up by (among others) selected members of Billy Bragg's Blokes, an incredible band itself, featuring the latter-day rhythm section of Shriekback (bassist Simon Edwards is Clee's husband), Ian MacLagan of the Faces, and Lu Edmonds of the Damned, Shriekback, 3 Mustaphas 3, PiL and just everyone else who mattered in England for the past quarter century. Bragg and all the Blokes get together to add their hearty, humble backing vocals to the lovely "Ship" (co-penned by onetime Golden Palomino Syd Straw), and pedal steel guitar legend B.J. Cole adds shimmery touches to a pair of tunes as well.
But, ultimately, this is Clee and Marsh's record, and they've created ten exquisitely written and beautifully sung songs, each one a keeper, each one a loving take on the sorts of dark mental and emotional states that we generally don't like to look at in loving, exquisite or beautiful terms. Vocally, the Dear Janes sound a wee bit like Kate and Anna McGarrigle, when the Canadian sisters are at the absolute top of their game, although this record's production (by Edwards and longtime Peter Murphy associate Howard Hughes) and instrumental performances are better than anything that's ever appeared on a McGarrigle's record, with the possible exception of the canon-defining Matapedia.
Record highlights on Skirt include the aforementioned "Ship," the lyrically clever "She Was the Dynamite," the harrowing and emotionally raw "Too Much Girl," and the song-defining, descending melody line of "This is Hell," which will at least make your trip in the direction of damnation as sweet as it possibly can be.
Copyright 2002: J. Eric Smith.