Sons & Daughters, Mirror Mirror

Written for Wears the Trousers, 13.06.11

Given how quiet they’ve been since 2008′s This Gift, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sons & Daughters had called it a day. Not so. The Scottish quartet are back on the road and back on record this summer with third album Mirror Mirror, a record that not only marks a change in direction for the band but also offers Optimo Music’s JD Twitch his first role as producer, making it something of a gamble. But it’s one that pays off.

Mirror Mirror is a slow-burning record that takes a while to sink its hooks in, and sees Sons & Daughters successfully follow a more minimalist, gloomier and grimier path than ever before. As the title suggests, it’s poised and polished, and full of concerns with surface and appearance. ‘Silver Spell’, a rumination on reflection, feels more like a prologue to the album than an opening song, built around percussion like a hammer on an anvil and ragged-edged mantras sung by Adele Bethel and Scott Paterson like they’re carving the words into stone. From there the album starts to develop with the brisk, taut ‘The Model’, a study in superficial beauty and hidden tragedy, and the lazily anthemic rush of lead single ‘Breaking Fun’, where Bethel matches Paterson’s hard-bitten vocals with breathy staccato.

The folk-rock guitars of the past have given way to sparse, brutalist percussion, with glossy, dark electro filling the spaces between. Combined with Bethel and Paterson’s girl–boy vocal blend, comparisons with The Kills are almost inevitable, although there’s still plenty that renders the music unique. One aspect which consistently marks this music out is the versatility of Bethel’s voice, which can range from a piercing yelp to silky effortlessness to a whisper of throaty urgency. There’s also some endearing sound effects thrown into the mix: the slinky, unstable pulse of ‘Ink Free’ is punctuated by the clattering of typewriter keys, ‘Bee Song’ features an insidiously catchy backing buzz, and album closer ‘The Beach’ begins and ends with thunder and rainfall.

Despite some occasional chinks of light, the skies over Mirror Mirror remain overcast and brooding, the album seemingly on the verge of a break in the clouds that never quite comes. Bethel has compared the album to the Italian thriller Suspiria, and Mirror Mirror is indeed thronged with themes of dark arts and studied violence, its cast of models, actresses and party girls facing danger at almost every turn. The standout Scottish-noir of ‘Rose Red’ captures the cinematic thrills and chills of after-dark adventures, its racing rhythms laced with a pulse of infectious anxiety, while ‘Axed Actor’ is a slickly macabre sketch of the Black Dahlia murder case.

Respite is very nearly delivered with ‘The Beach’, which is equally bleak in content but sounds incongruously high-spirited, its introductory Appalachian twang springing with relief into a higher gear as though sloughing off the preceding grit and grime. Paradoxically, although this sparkling finish allows you to emerge from the album feeling cleansed, you’re also left wanting to dive right back into the darkness.

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