Longtime readers of Opus will know that when it comes to female vocalists, I prefer mine to be otherworldly and ethereal (e.g., Lisa Gerrard, Elizabeth Fraser, Rachel Goswell, Mimi Parker). Now, the ladies in Kissing Cousins can evoke an otherworldly air with their songs — particularly when they slip into an old time‑y spiritual mood — but most of the time, they’re raw, rough around the edges… and quite exhilarating.
Kissing Cousins don’t pull any punches: right from the get go, with its stomping rhythms and writhing, tortured fuzz guitar, “Close To The Fire” grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Meanwhile, Heather B. Heywood’s echoing vocals manage to be both sexy and eerie, like P.J. Harvey if she were a roller derby girl — or The Shirelles if they were into switchblades and drag racing.
Throughout Pillar of Salt, the Cousins reminds me of another Velvet Blue Music act: SS Bountyhunter (R.I.P.). While not as extreme in presentation or content, Kissing Cousins nevertheless treads through some of the same musical territory, blending together surf rock, garage rock, and 50s “B” movie soundtracks to create — with the help of producer Richard Swift — a distorted, stripped down sound that evokes everything from car chases and back alley knife fights to Pentacostal revivals.
And like SS Bountyhunter, there’s a surprising amount of diversity that becomes apparent once you get past the distortion and aggression. It’s in the flute solos that pop up on “Deathhouse” and the band’s cover of The Monolators’ “Red Lamb” that, like Heywood’s vocals, bring both sensuality and eeriness to the music. There’s the way that the bass creeps and snakes its way below the songs’ surfaces until it explodes at just the right moments. And the female vocal harmonies only add to the album’s uncanny mix of sweetness and creepiness — this becomes especially apparent on the a capella hymn “Snake Handler 1” and the solemn, mournful “Snake Handler 2.”
There are moments when the band’s sound doesn’t congeal as well, when the band’s exuberance gets them in a little trouble. It’s hard to not picture the band stumbling over themselves and giving in a little too much to their sound’s campier elements when “Over Now” abruptly shifts from its creepy, well-paced verses to the explosive, punk rock chorus.
But I spend most of my time with Pillar of Salt just relishing in the band’s rawk. The ladies in Kissing Cousins prove time and again that they’ve got some chops with their sound, evoking a retro style while rarely being stymied by it, and doing it all with the right amounts of coyness, sensuality, innocence, and bad-ass swagger.