And so goes the most memorable line on Mercersberg, Pennsylvania’s The Hello Strangers’ latest self-titled set. It comes from single “What It Takes to Break a Heart,” and boy does it stick. It sticks because it’s impossible to stop humming. It sticks because of the fervor with which sisters Larissa Chace Smith and Brechyn Chace often sing. And it sticks because it bites harder than the creatures that might be found at the bottom of the Conococheague, a body of water the sisters seem to know a thing or three about.
The narrative of the Strangers is a unique one: On the heels of their excellent 2012 set, “Introducing Max Schmidt,” they won a contest aptly titled “Win An Americana Record Deal” from AirPlay Direct. The winners were flown to Nashville to record with a bevy of pros. These 13 tracks (with an added radio mix of the aforementioned single) were what came of it.
The result certainly sounds like The Hello Strangers were finally given a budget, and you’d have to be deaf not to hear the Nashville textures that weave their ways in and out of every song. “Ruined” is the most obvious example, featuring a very specific form of twang best heard anytime of day throughout the city’s Music Row. Running on a half-boogie, the production is warm and the electric guitars are sparse, creating an atmosphere akin to that of the country-music capital’s version of Broadway, where the lights shine through the Southern night and the sounds slip out into the streets with ease.
Ditto for “What It Takes to Break a Heart” and “Holy Unholy.” Led by a stomping kick drum and a cut-time tempo, the former is a fabulously affecting duet, one sister taking care of the low-range attitude while the other backs everything up with borderline shouts that add urgency to an already intense structure. The best part? Check out the moment at a minute-and-a-half when the line “Lord knows I need the courage/ Before it becomes a s—- show” creeps through in a wildly terse and infectiously fun manner. The latter, meanwhile, swings with lovely texture that is accentuated by the presence of a sad Nashville slide guitar. The lush harmonies embedded in The Sisters Chace don’t hurt, either.
Yet for as affecting as those moments are — and for as memorable as the Music City guidance will inevitably be — nothing can top the most impressive element of this set, and that’s the Strangers’ very pure writing ability. They hinted at it on “Max Schmidt’s” “The World Knows Far Better Than Me” (which reappears here with cozy production and not for a second does it lose its appeal), but it isn’t until you sit with a few of these songs that you realize the depth of their talents.
Opening track “Runaway” is addicting in a subtle way that musically illustrates what the universal autumnal vision of beauty most often is. Leaning more toward the folk world than it does country-music values, this refrain will kill you every time: “Before the drugs set in/ Before relief begins/ I’m a cliche. I’ve been beat like a horse/ But the race has just begun.” Sung with a straight face, it’s paralyzing. “What You Don’t Know,” written by Jim Lauderdale, then goes on to revisit that haunting quality, even if the Strangers’ names don’t receive any publishing credits. Much like the Beach Boys proved decades ago, there is nothing quite like a solid familial vocal harmony, and the backing “Ah-oh’s” are darker than a planetarium.
Almost every song from “Max Schmidt” appears elsewhere here, not so much re-imagined anymore than they are reiterated. “Conococheague” is still a load of fun with its themes of Death By Unfaithfulness. “Poor Dear” continues to turn up the accordion, but it bites just as much as it ever did while “The World Knows Far Better” is still one of the best songs this area has cultivated in years. And by the time their take on “Que Sera, Sera” comes around, you can’t help but smile, if only because you know precisely how pure their intentions are.
Actually, purity is a pretty prevalent piece of both The Hello Strangers as a band and The Hello Strangers as an album. No matter what they do, you believe them, and no matter how vengeful some of their words are, you support them. Maybe it’s the harmonies. Or maybe it’s the writing. Or maybe it’s the beauty in voice. Or maybe it’s the raw talent. Or maybe it’s all of that stuff combining to make one big pot of greatness.
Whatever it is exactly might not matter because if nothing else, The Sisters Chace have proven one thing with this record: They certainly deserve to be playing with the big boys and girls from the big city of Nashville from now on. And they deserve to be playing with those big boys and big girls for a very, very long time.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***