Husband and wife, singing and playing together.
And they’re each deft instrumentalists, and they’ve spent years playing in others’ bands before coming together as a unit. They’re bound by music and an uncommon depth of companionship, they’re good enough to make Steve Earle swoon, and all of that sounds quite nice.
Until 16 and a half seconds into track one, when Eleanor Whitmore begins singing, “The twitch in my left eye came back today.”
“Yeah, we’re not exactly gazing lovingly at each other while we’re playing these songs,” says guitarist Chris Masterson. “Sometimes the ‘couple’ thing can seem a bit schmaltzy. We’re more a band than a duo, and we’re not going to be George and Tammy. We might not even be John and Exene.”
That’s not to say that these folks don’t love each other, or that they aren’t of a piece. It’s just that listening to The Mastersons - either live or on their immediately engaging, musically expansive debut album, Birds Fly South (due out April 10 on New West Records) - isn’t akin to eavesdropping on two soulmates’ impossibly intimate conversation. This is more fun than that, with bright melodies that lead to dark lyrics, inventive harmonies and enough sparkle and twang to fashion a Porter Wagoner suit. Together, Whitmore (who plays guitar, violin, mandolin and most anything else with strings) and Masterson arrive at a singular blend that Emmylou Harris speaks of as “the third voice,” one distinct from its individual elements.
“Eleanor on her own has a beautiful voice, far better than mine,” Masterson says. “But when we come together, something bigger happens.”
That “something bigger” is captured in full on Birds Fly South, an album with soul and groove and teeth and not an ounce of schmaltz. Like the Jayhawks or Buddy & Julie Miller, it exists in an expansive territory that encompasses rock, pop, blues and country, but this is not an “If you like x, then you’ll like y” kind of record. It’s an unexpected and frequently astonishing melding of sensibilities, from two unique yet perfectly-matched artists.