Lula Wiles closes the space between traditional and today
An important note: Lula Wiles, the person, does not exist. “We are a band. We like songs. None of us are named Lula,” proclaims the Facebook page of the Boston-based trio. (It makes one wonder how many times the band’s three women have been asked: “So which one of you is Lula?”) But it’s a name you should know in any case. With its second album, “What Will We Do,” released Jan. 25 on Smithsonian Folkways, Lula Wiles has staked its place among the big-hearted, outspoken sisterhoods of country and folk music.
Recorded at Jamaica Plain’s Dimension Sound Studios, the album sounds up-close. Isa Burke and Eleanor Buckland both play guitar and fiddle, while Mali Obomsawin plays bass, and all sing. Front to back, the women of Wiles are at ease with one another, their vocal harmonies and instruments coming together in a solid and cozy meld.
The three’s musical friendship dates to their time together at fiddle camp, but Lula Wiles itself sprouted in the fertile roots-music ground of Berklee College of Music. The band’s Carter Family-inspired name (after the song “Lula Walls”) conjures certain down-home idyllic images: summertime, girls in gingham dresses, gatherings around the piano to sing together.
And sing together they do, but for every song of love and loss on “What Will We Do,” there’s an unvarnished look at larger American realities such as the opioid epidemic and the aftermath of the 2017 white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va. And if that wasn’t enough to let you know that this isn’t your grandma’s Carter Family compilation, all the original songs on the album are credited to “Millennial Scum Publishing, BMI.” (“The Pain of Loving You,” by country supergroup Trio, is the album’s only cover song.)
“Hometown,” penned by all the band members and described as a “love song to rural Maine,” compassionately touches on the dearth of opportunities in small towns. “Red and white and the working blues . . . no matter who wins, someone’s gonna lose.” Obomsawin, a citizen of the Abenaki Nation, strikes at the country’s legacy of Native American erasure and genocide with the deceptively sweet “Good Old American Values.”
The band’s songs of heartbreak are incisive and complex — Buckland’s song “If I Don’t Go” wavers in the space between “dump him!” and fear of being alone, and album opener “Love Gone Wrong” takes place in the uneasy hollow between realizing the spark is gone and saying goodbye. The pulse-pounding “Bad Guy” flips the murdered-girl trope of many traditional ballads on its head, as its narrator (Buckland) breathlessly confesses to knocking off her sister’s abusive husband, without “Goodbye Earl”-ish glibness but with plenty of conviction. Don’t be fooled by that album title. It seems the members of Lula Wiles know exactly what they’re doing.
Lula Wiles plays an album release show at Oberon, Cambridge, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m.