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Rock with a good underbelly of darkness

‘Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul’ is everything I've come to expect from a Jesse Sykes record — it's beautiful, it's sad, it's deeply thought-provoking and it's hauntingly catchy. By Kurt Schlosser
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“I Like the Sound.”

Few song titles in my library of music so succinctly sum up how I feel about an artist.

But when it comes to Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, quite simply, I like the sound. And with the Feb. 6 release of the band’s third album, that sentiment is more true than ever.

“Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul” is everything I've come to expect from a Jesse Sykes record — it’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s deeply thought-provoking and it’s hauntingly catchy. All of these qualities I might use to describe Sykes herself.

The Seattle singer songwriter teamed with ex-Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher in 1998 and within a couple years, the two got serious about writing songs and playing live shows. It’s hard to imagine how her voice and his guitar ever existed apart from one another. And on the right songs, it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins as the sound of her voice can often echo the whispering cry of his instrument.

Longtime viola player Anne Marie Ruljancich has left the band, but bassist Bill Herzog remains with new drummer Eric Eagle to complete the Sweet Hereafter with Wandscher. For almost five years they've been critically and popularly referred to as alt-country. With “Like, Love, Lust ...” they are perhaps trying to distance themselves from that overused label, and Sykes is happy to help.

“The rock ’n’ roll side of us is being addressed a little more,” Sykes said. “I think it was a natural progression with the new record. We needed to step out of our comfort zone. If we’d kept creating barren, minimalist records — that sort of impression sound we’re known for — we’d have dug ourselves a creative hole.”

With the band’s first two records, “Reckless Burning” and “Oh, My Girl,” Sykes’ voice was relatively unchanged between the two. This time around, some noticeable chances were taken with pitch and tempo, and it’s refreshing to hear — especially on the tracks “LLL,” “You Might Walk Away,” and “I Like the Sound.”

“My voice has matured,” Sykes admits. “I took some chances and allowed some songs to push my voice. I started understanding I shouldn’t fight it, and said, ‘This is cool that it's a little too low or whatever’ ... it added a level of poignancy to the vocals.”

But fans of Sykes’ dark and brooding music needn’t worry that the band has abandoned their signature sound. Tracks like “The Air is Thin” and “Hard Not to Believe” possess all the beauty and loneliness that some people find as reassuring as a grey and rainy Northwest winter.

“People will always sort of color me dark, because these songs, lyrically, they're not sugar pop,” Sykes says. “But I feel like there's a lot of hope embedded in these songs ... and love and warmth. It’s rock but it's got a good underbelly of darkness. A lot of music these days lacks that mystique.”

And when the tempo is ratched up a bit on this album, Sykes evokes the legendary likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in explaining the importance of mixing it up.

“Records back in the day that were important took the listener on a voyage,” she said. “You want as a listener to go into different emotional terrain. And I think on this record there’s a real emotional temperature change.”

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