For reasons not entirely clear to me, the Watson Twins, Leigh and Chandra — who unlike the Thompson Twins and the Cocteau Twins, are, in fact, twins — previously called themselves Black Swan, like some kind of Goth band. Listening to their self-released debut EP, Southern Manners, you get the feeling that some third-party thought an old timey billing such as “Twins,” as previously utilized by the matching-sports-coat-wearing Armstrong Twins, better reflected the Watsons Twins’ nominally old timey-sounding music, and the rest was history.
The Watson Twins were born Louisville, Kentucky, whose rich musical history needs no introduction. In the late 1990s they packed up their probably matching suitcases and hightailed it to L.A., where they settled in trendy-in-a-retro-mid-twentieth-century-America-kind-of-way Silverlake and commenced making music, first as backup singers for the horrifically named local group Slydell. More recent musical adventures have seen them backing Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis on her almost-but-not-quite-old-timey solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, wherein their contribution was deemed significant enough to merit billing as Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins. They’re currently backing Lewis on her U.S. tour and hawking Southern Manners on the side, just like on the old country music circuit.
With the whole twins thing and the connections noted above, you’d think Southern Manners would be pretty firmly in Gillian Welch territory, and you’d be wrong. It’s clear about ten seconds into the album that the Watson Twins aren’t nearly as Southern or old sounding as their name would have you believe: this ain’t bluegrass or country so much as Mazzy Star as performed by the members of Fleetwood Mac. Opener “Friend and Foe” has the Watsons, whose nice voices pretty much split the difference between Stevie Nicks and Chrstine McVie, singing sadly but sultry over slide guitar almost exactly like Hope Sandoval does on Mazzy Star’s superior “Halah.” It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s fine enough to be what folks in the music industry call “promising.” Unfortunately, it’s just about the only thing on Southern Manners that is.
On the second track, the wilting “The Time of My Life,” the Watsons use up all their good ideas — a Casio drumbeat fades in and out — in the first five seconds. The balance of the brutally long, repetitive song is not helped by a set of high-school-composition-notebook lyrics as mystifyingly trite as the title would seem to warn (“Like the sweetest nectar/ The softest breeze/ My heart it melts with/ All the beauty it sees”).
Southern Manners, then, wastes no time in getting bogged down in uninspired and, frankly, boring mid-tempo balladry from which it fails to emerge. The songs are every bit as stultifyingly middle-of-the-road as their titles: “High School,” “Shoot the Lights Out,” “Hardly Undone.” The monotony is such that the otherwise pretty decent title track — a bluesy number that sounds weirdly like something off the Black Crows’ The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion — feels out-of-place, as if it were cut by a different band altogether.
The Watson Twins unquestionably can sing. But good records take more than good singing. Maybe it’s just a matter of the Watson Twins finding their collective voice as artists, a process that took the aforementioned Welch two or three albums. Leigh and Chandra Watson don’t do it on Southern Manners.