Judd and Maggie make all the right choices on their new project, Choose, a well-rounded pop-rock effort.
Judd and Maggie
14 tracks / 52:21 minutes
There seems to be something very good going on with bands that have at their core two people who work so symbiotically with one another that the music seems to be an extension of their combined personalities.
Often, as with Over the Rhine, Waterdeep or Ben + Vesper, the relationship is husband and wife – for Judd and Maggie, it's brother and sister. This particular family dynamic seems to be working quite well, since the duo's new self-released, self-produced project, Choose, is the most compelling collection of songs they've ever created.
Judd and Maggie have often been labeled folk or folk-pop but make no mistake – Choose is pop-rock at its finest. There's more of an edge, more funk, more groove and attitude to this project than I'd expected to hear, and yet there's still the trademark sensitivity and introspection that elevates their music and sets it apart from the glut of feel-good, shallow efforts that have given pop a bad name. This is pop music well informed by The Beatles and the post-classic rock era. The songs are melodic, strongly structured, and have wonderful hooks that you can grab onto - the lyrics are intelligent, and are set in verses and choruses that will make you want to sing along.
Starting right off with a pure, fuzz-laden rock 'n roll rhythm guitar kicking off "Always," the solid electro-pop back-beat underpins the infectious, hooky melody. Judd comes off surprisingly well in a 'rock star' persona here (as well as on "History") with an almost punkish, post new-wave approach. Of course, Maggie's harmony is the icing on the cake.
Maggie takes the lead on "Disappear," where we are introduced to another key element to this smartly-crafted production: the string quartet. Starting out with a stark, sparse arrangement featuring her plaintive, emotional vocal, strings, drums and subtle keys, we begin to see how the two sides of this coin work. Like the polished McCartney 'completing' the rough, visceral Lennon, Maggie's delicate presence is perfectly matched by Judd – this works throughout the album, specifically here and in the next track, "Begin," which highlights the siblings singing harmony throughout a good deal of the song.
Choose is full of songs about love and longing, trying to understand relationships, life in general, and of course, choices. The classic O. Henry tale, The Gift of the Magi, is echoed in "Everything," a catchy little tune about sacrificial love. In "Balance," a song about learning to live with our efforts to sort out this tightrope-walk, we hear, "give me one last chance to get it right / I didn't think it'd take so long, to learn this balance" - interesting stuff for a hook-laden pop song.
While Judd is sounding more and more like Rick Altizer ("Someone") or Jon Foreman ("All About You"), Maggie's singing is becoming more delicate, more vulnerable, always inviting – but never more so than on "Commit or Go," the stunning ballad that has 'classic' written all over it. "There is only so much time to meet – talk – then get together," she sings, "you can take this as pressure – commit or go." Accompanied only by subtle electric piano and a string quartet, Maggie lays out the melody and rides the chord changes in such vulnerable but compelling tones that she delivers the title-phrase infused with equal parts drama and haunting elegance.
Judd and Maggie have indeed learned 'that balance' of pop music and rock 'n roll. From the Beatles–like "Someone," which suggests, "hug me goodbye but kiss me hello," to the pensive lyrics of the thoughtful "There You are – Here I Am," which closes the album:
"it's a gorgeous evening, and I'm a fallen being / taking signs for wonders, and wonders for granted..."
Choose teaches us not to take wonderful pop albums for granted...