AUSTIN, Texas—Hear just a snippet of Molly Burch’s Please Be Mine, and everyone lands on the same reference point: country circa the ‘60s. And, yes, when given the keys to the local NPR station for an hourlong DJ set recently, she did pay proper homage to Tammy Wynette. But listen closer, and Burch reveals a distinctly modern voice that draws a little from everything—jazz to post-punk to present day pop. Accordingly, during her record release show at the intimate Mohawk, Burch put on a vocal tour de force that showcased all that range.
On a macro-level, Burch juxtaposes that general vintage, pre-pop country sound with vocal flexibility likely not possible in that era. On something like “Torn to Pieces,” her opening lines intentionally have an unfinished quality that’s become more familiar in jazz. As the choruses subtly creep towards telling some nameless lover what a mistake he or she has made, she dips into forceful bit of emotive speak-singing like David Byrne (or perhaps more appropriately, her future tourmate Tim Darcy).
Later in the set on “Loneliest Heart,” she displays top notch musicianship as everyone drops out behind her except for individually plucked guitar notes that Burch deftly remains attuned to. And with “Fool”—a song dotted with instances of glorious low-to-high note vocal slides and dreamy 50s-esque harmonies (DJ Burch picked the Everly Brothers, too)— she gives herself a few late song chorus moments to truly embrace some belting that’d be right at home in “Stand By Your Man.”
Burch would likely soar no matter what given her pitch-perfect, smoky alto, but she’s got a band well suited to highlighting such strengths. “Torn to Pieces” drives forward with dark and boomy bass-and-guitar that’d be at-home in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge (editor’s note: someone nudge David Lynch for S3, please). “Downhearted” takes on a similarly dreamy vibe with its guitar/organ interplay, and each song boasts interesting yet metronome-precise drumset playing behind it all.
In particular, guitarist Dailey Toliver shines live. He looks the part of a guitarist for Deerhunter—a denim clad musician with instrument strapped tightly and held high, eyes closed or focused in as his head moves in sync with intricate licks. Luckily he plays as well as Lockett Pundt, too. Though Toliver’s work rightfully and often plays second fiddle to the vocals, his various riffs operated swiftly and intricately within the broad framework of these songs. The rest of the band lays down plenty of sustained chords and quarter note-driven lines with ideal balance and dynamics, and Toliver (especially on tracks like “Wrong For You”) occupies those spaces with many whistle-inducing runs and rhythms. If any non-vocal moment threatened to steal the evening’s spotlight, his slide/bottleneck solo on “Fool” came closest.
But ultimately Burch leaves the most lingering impression on an audience. She’s a bit meek outside of the songs—not much banter beyond repeated “thank yous” and she admitted that kind of public speaking can make her nervous during that radio DJ set. Once the music starts, however, Burch captures your attention. Her face livens up and emotes lyrics that wink at old country stereotypes while embracing modern empowerment, and she exudes confidence no matter what instrument in her vocal toolbox is being deployed.
Like Sturgill Simpson or Margo Price or Jason Isbell, Burch delivers country/folk that’s irresistible even to the “I listen to everything but country” crowd. Expect her powerful calm to draw plenty of attention during the upcoming chaos that is SXSW. Record release night at the Mohawk—the same club where Burch played her very first show as an Austinite—was likely her first of many packed venues in town.
The overall concert bill turned out as varied as Burch’s vocal abilities. The heavily-experimental Cross Record played second and seemed to keep the crowd as the duo bounced from experimental noise to classic rock to straight-up driving “High Rise.” But opening act Julia Lucille brought the more interesting set.
Crudely, Lucille’s work could be described as War on Drugs composition meets ethereal Beach House vocals with just a touch of twang tossed in. She led her band through some great atmospheric “dream folk” (h/t Gorilla v. Bear) that, like Burch, worked off the foundation of many sustained instrument voicings and quarter-note-laden passages. The minimalism lets Lucille’s vocal flourishes and loops (or occasionally some delightfully menacing bass lines) really shine. The drummer may have only unleashed something more than a quarter note on his cymbals once or twice throughout, but those passages consequently really felt like they moved. Lucille’s engaging eight-song set should have listeners excited for her upcoming April LP.
This review also appeared on my Instagram.