At last week’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction gala in New York, tryouts were held for would-be Nirvana singers – only those with X chromosomes needed to apply. So, you’re up, Joan Jett, St. Vincent, Kim Gordon and Lorde. But nobody asked Jessica Lea Mayfield to sit in with ex-Nirvana members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl for the Skirt Cobain auditions. Nobody knew what she had locked in her basement, or what bodies were stashed in the trunk of her Chevelle.
On the first track of her third album, she sings “I could kill her with the powers of my mind,” sounding deadpanned and dead-eyed, and so unserious that you just know she means it. And the noise – teetering guitar grunge, straight from a Kurt Cobain afterworld. Mayfield has always been plaintive and haunting, but now she’s severe; this is an interrogation (“you say you’ve told all there is to know”) and her philandering paramour has no right to an attorney. The song is Oblivious, which is what she says she’s satisfied to be. And she won’t be killing anyone, because she’s a “good humanitarian.” It’s a relief to hear that, but we’d all feel better if she would just put down that knife.
She will. Mayfield has made her point – to her cheater, and to us.
“My guitar amps were so loud when we recorded this, that it made me feel nauseous,” she told Rolling Stone of the track. She said that the album’s raw tone – seemingly borrowed from Cobain’s effects-pedal preferences – is a reaction to today’s “big” sounds, and that she and her two-piece rhythm section wanted “real guitar tones and something heavy.” Accomplished. Second track Pure Stuff carries on with things heavy.
Mayfield’s 2011 album, Tell Me, (produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach) was eerily captivating, but carried a hazy indie-pop element– comparable to Sharon Van Etten, but with less drone. Something like the new Standing in the Sun, with its sweet vocals and chiming strum, would have fit on Tell Me.
The new album’s lead single I Wanna Love You also has a catchy melody and that blurry guitar jangle, but Mayfield’s expressionless, echo-drenched vocals are disarming: “I have visions in my brain that are different from the truth.” Do I Have the Time is straight-ahead dream pop until this: “If you think you’ll miss me, then resuscitate me/my mouth is turning blue, it tastes like blood and barbecue.” Blood and barbecue? She sure knows how to harsh a pig roast.
So, yeah, there’s a druggy element at work here. Mayfield wants to “numb it out” on Pure Stuff, and Party Drugs make her “head sing.” And by the time we get to the morose No Fun, you might want to put on Nirvana’s In Utero to cheer yourself up.
Mayfield may never make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She might not even make to the end of the week, by the sounds of it. “I won’t die in this hotel room,” she promises at one point, “I’ll be here when you return.” You want to believe her, but you don’t need a Magic 8 Ball to tell you that her Nirvana fixation might not end well.
Jessica Lea Mayfield plays Toronto’s Garrison, May 23; Montreal’s Divan Orange, May 24.