Such seems to be the mantra of Mercersburg, Pa.’s The Hello Strangers, however clich? that age-old adage may appear to be. Actually, their latest six-song effort, “Introducing Max Schmidt” (released in 2010), is Exhibit A for how easily that phrase is able to translate into the music world with grace and power. Sisters Larissa Chace Smith and Brechyn Chace aren’t just mad — they are stinkin’ mad, and they have no problem with expressing such scathing anger in tunes filled with musical backdrops that are heavy on pop-country and words that are bursting at the seams with poignancy and command.
What sets these songwriters apart from other female-led local groups is their willingness to collaborate with a full band to get their point across. Kate O’Neil’s drums provide a soft texture that other acoustic-guitar-driven female vocal groups in the area might lack at times, and Kevin Shannon’s electric guitar is placed beautifully between verses and bridges, not over-staying its welcome, yet making an impact with its sparse tones and clean rhythms. It’s a fantastic combination, really, and the result should ultimately pay dividends for these sisters, who are destined for bigger things.
It all begins with “The Same Routine,” one of the more up-tempo tracks of the bunch. Here, the group shows its pop-music chops as the sisters tell a story about one of the most common themes in country music: a toxic relationship. “The same routine and I still feel alone,” is sung as the chorus ends and the vocal track fades into hopelessness. It wouldn’t work if these gals didn’t sound like they mean it as much as they do.
“Conococheague” and “Poor Dear” are as dark as they come, the former, an off-beat, Neil Young-ish recollection of a lost lover, and the latter, a fast-tempo country-fied romp that echoes the mainstream portion of Johnny Cash’s catalogue. “I had a lover/ Like no other,” one of the sisters sings before proclaiming “But he’s at the bottom of the Conococheague” during the song that shares the river’s name. Not only does it seem like the type of morbid tall tale usually tailor-made for the Americana music world, but it also showcases exactly how well The Hello Strangers can paint a gloomy picture.
Speaking of gloomy, “The World Knows Far Better Than Me” proves to be the best track “Introducing Max Schmidt” offers as the song takes a simple waltz and transforms the combination of a few acoustic guitars, vocals and a harmonica into a staggering finale that will stick with you for days. It’s the closest thing the group comes to folk music, drawing on a Bob Dylan-meets-Emmylou Harris approach that succeeds in the most memorable of ways. The refrain’s repetition is striking not only for its down-and-out words but also for its defeated presentation. This track stands above the rest because of its bleeding soul.
Word has it that the sisters Chace recently won a contest that landed them a record deal and The Hello Strangers will be heading to Nashville to record the follow up to “Introducing Max Schmidt” (a release date is set for later this year). Whatever these ladies might be able to accomplish as a result of this opportunity in the future, none of us know. What we do know, however, is that The Hello Strangers have set themselves apart from most every other local female vocal group with this heartfelt, authentic and nearly perfect six-song piece of pop-country. It’s a little Neko Case, though not as jagged. It’s a little Amy Speace, though not as polished. And it’s a little Beggar’s Ride, though much more angry and full.
Most importantly, it’s a lot like the sound of a couple women scorned. And frankly, it hasn’t sounded this good in a long, long time.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***