Massachusetts-based songwriters, Susan Levine and Doug Kwartler started performing together nearly two years ago and this is their debut CD. Phil Everly, back in 1960, understood relationships and their tentative heart-breaking nature: “I’ve been made blue; I’ve been lied to; I’ve been turned down, I’ve been pushed round ; I’ve been cheated, been mistreated..” That two minute song, “When will I be loved?” says it all, and those three words are perfect choice for the name of this duo. Levine and Kwartler’s memorable performances and their lyrics in this CD echo that successful simplicity.
The first track sets the scene: “Spent some time in California/ Headed down from New York City, West Virginia, Austin, Memphis, Nashville too, / Now I’m back in Boston....” The personal setting and the reference to cities is implicitly important. Not only is the scene set but we can hear from the duet that here are two distinctive, memorable singers, telling us about the hard life in the music business: “Just another 4-hour long Friday night and another tired tune.” And there is that disturbing, undeveloped suggestion: “Now I’m moving towards the river, Tell me something...” These two writers demand their listeners think about their lyrics. On the second track Susan is on her own. “Your Heart isn’t Mine,” is a song of short, firm statements and a decision made.
In “Carry Your Boots” both singers complement each other perfectly. The strength of the song writing carries the number along. The starting point is a disastrous landslide in Baltimore in 2014 and the song tackles dealing with a disaster, being prepared and surviving. ”Carry your boots, but wear your shoes” seems like sound advice. The balance of the album is demonstrated by the next track: “Tennessee” is a song of colours , place and spirituality . Susan’s voice takes hold of feeling and narrative, hoping for something at the end of heartache. “We’ve got miles and miles to go before our hope becomes belief.” This is a song that aches with longing. “Tennessee...Tennessee...” Why is it that American places in song can affect you so strongly? By now you are in the thrall of this album. “Things Aren’t Always as They Seem” is the perfect central track. The truisms of everyday life: “Same journey. Different dream......You caught the bus. I caught the wire..” and the sound of a pedal steel guitar (played by Mark Spencer from Son Volt) sneaks up on you gently in the background. This is lyrically and musically a gentle masterpiece. And so the collection works.
In the next track, “Sleep in” Susan Levine’s strong voice shows a kind of inner determination. “Sorrow came a knocking I won’t be buying.” “Eulalie” is an unusual title, an unexpected track. Is this the yellow-haired young Eulalie in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem? Anyway, the reference to remembering a southern accent compounds the appealing mystery, as does Levine’s mandolin in the background. “Do You Ever Miss The Things You Swore You Never Would” is the head on the shoulder simplicity of the Everlys, just to remind the listener of the tentative heart-breaking nature of love and how well The Lied To’s describe it all. Track 10 is called “Ten”. The observation is in the lyrics. The casually tossed cigarette, “Hands lost inside my sleeves.” The realisation that the beauty is in the letting go and, crucially, the grabbing on again. The last track ends the collection. It is a cover of Peter Wolf’s “Always Asking for You.”
There is a lot to ponder on here and this is an important, carefully constructed first album which deserves an audience and praise in the UK and in Europe.
The Lied To’s are a folk duo capable of becoming hugely familiar to listeners throughout New England. Susan Levine and Doug Kwartler formed this act after a significant period of transition for both singers. Their hard won experiences form the basis for their gritty, realistic lyrical material. Their unique blend of vocals and acoustic instruments create a lot of brittle, tender melodies and sweetly appealing harmonies. The due have a compact acoustic sound in each of their songs that pave the way for their unimposing but very likable voices to travel across.
Opening track “Tell Me Something New” finds the two singing in a tidy unison, their vocal melody line seeming to reach great emotional distances with their earnest applications of voice. Beneath their voices lies a yearning pedal steel line supported by a nudge of acoustic guitar and a persistent beat that’s as strong as horse steps. This one conjures lonely scenes that wrap around the forlorn pedal steel while painting accurate descriptions of a demanding music business.
“Your Heart Isn’t Mine” is an effective, pre-break up song. The two of them apply their voices, in turn, to conjuring the courageous confrontation between two who have become emotionally separate. This one is full of gritty guitar and organ that carries the message with a meaty swagger. It also showcases Levine’s uncanny ability to reach the listener’s heart with simple, unaffected sustains. There is true feeling in her expression, and in this tune it reaches an undeniable power and truth.
“Carry Your Boots” has more of an acoustic pop sensibility. It has a rangy, catchy chorus making it ready for radio. It also carries well the Kwartler lead guitar melody, one that rides the range of this number with adventurous aplomb. Putting their two voices together, this piece grows warmer and thicker with that special something that comes out of nowhere whenever the pair harmonize.
Gliding in with an organ waltz and a sweet series of mandolin notes, “Tennessee” is a flavorful affair that allows Levine to show how she scales emotional and musical heights. Her voice travels well along the wedge of organ and piano John-Henry Trink constructs beneath her. It’s a startlingly good song on the strength of her ability to lay her lilting vocal ability over a honky tonk flavored musical backdrop.
“Things Aren’t Always As They Seem” tugs one in with its interval of intriguing acoustic guitar notes before it chugs with a puff of drums. Kwartler sings with handsome simplicity over a tender weave of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and organ. His sandpapery vocal contrasts superbly with a sweet as candy mandolin line and a pretty pedal steel cry beneath.
Levine creates a sadly telling scene in “Sleep In,” a song that hints slyly at an unhappy domestic setting. Her lyrical content develops from sitting alone drinking coffee with a lot of whiskey to murdering the ghost of the one who has already moved on. Her voice, making the most of this wistful material, carries the message well, especially her melancholy chorus. Mournful pedal steel and honky tonk organ double the feelings of this song, and Levine sounds on target when she returns to the initial idea of just wanting to sleep in.
“Eulalie” steps into the listener’s consciousness with Kwartler’s vocal calling on the title character to answer for herself. There is something truthful and earnest about the challenge he issues this person. With religious revival scenes percolating throughout the lyrics, the pair breathe even more life into it with organ, gritty acoustic instruments like Levine’s mandolin, and Kwartler’s hearty vocals.
“You Already Know” feels like a ballad in the way Levine takes her sweet time unfolding her tale before emphasizing its emotive fire in the chorus. She makes her listener enjoy the ride from her folksy verses to the banner of her chorus. She has a self-restraint that packs even more power into her verses and chorus while a fluttering mandolin melody pushes things in an inevitable direction.
Kwartler’s “Do You Ever Miss The Things You Swore You Never Would” has a 1950s ballad sensibility in his vocal projection. One can almost picture him singing into a old fashioned microphone at Sun Studio while a simple set up of guitarist, upright bassist, and a small drum kit. Kwartler carries almost the entire force of this piece with his voice and its beautifully old timey approach eventually incorporates a lot of elements, offering a lot in its 4:15 running time. There’s a player piano that sounds borrowed out of a carnival, accordion from an old world combo, and a gypsy flavored mandolin line that twitches with glee while pushing the song merrily along.
“Ten” offers more of Levine’s lyrical poetry: “Ashes blowing down the highway/Remnants of a careless cigarette/I never understood how someone lights a fire/Throws it out a window and forgets.” She soon moves onto this hopeful song’s message of strength through letting go, moving on, and learning to live and love again. She puts a lot of grit behind her message with a bit of instrumental accompaniment and it all fills out this emotional anthem with the fiery passion that good folk music all about.
The Lied To’s close out their album with a cover of Will Jennings’ and Peter Wolf’s “Always Asking For You.” The song has a mighty acoustic guitar strum and a vocal that calls out with a seriousness of purpose. We feel how much The Lied To’s enjoy singing this number and it makes one wonder how they formed their affinity for it.
The Lied To’s debut album shows a new big thing in folk music taking shape. Their personal lyrics manage to also be universal songs in that everyone in their generation can relate to them: relationship stress, holy rollers pointing their fingers without ever offering solutions, and a world that’s always changing while seeming to remain the same. The pair put their emotionally honest, visually striking messages across with the kind of nitty, gritty pluck that makes musician folk heroes as well as a storytellers.
THE LIED TO'S - 11 SONG DEBUT CD:
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Susan Levine and singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Doug Kwartler have teamed up to create one of the finest contemporary guy/gal duos on the scene today. Calling themselves theLied To’s, Levine and Kwartler’s voices couldn’t be more suited to one another’s on their self-titled debut album. While the duo handled the recording & production process, a majority of the instrumentation and all the vocals, they enlisted Mark Spencer on lap steel, Doug Pettibone on guitar and John-Henry Trinko on piano & Hammond organ to add their understated talents to the project. Best songs sure to garner Adult contemporary airplay include the sweetly sung “Tennessee,” the country sway of “Things Aren’t Always as They Seem,” the hopeful yearning of “Ten,” the outstanding dual lead vocals of “Tell Me Something New” and the cover of Peter Wolf’s “Always Asking For You.” Americana, folk, country or pop... call it what you want, Kwartler and Levine nailed this recording to the wall. Outstanding! [D.S.]
“Some of the wistful knowledge of Dolly Parton at her best.” - The Boston Globe
"Doug Kwartler brings to the 21st century the passion and perception of the great 20th century folk singers like Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan." - Nick Noble, Host of The Folk Revival radio show on WICN - Worcester, MA.