Les Ailes is not a person, but the musical project of Seattle born singer/songwriter Rylie DeGarmo, who wrote the songs for her debut album Tennessee while living, working and touring in the South. DeGarmo happened to serve a hamburger to producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Carson McHone) at a Nashville restaurant, and was later invited to record in McHone’s studio. DeGarmo speculates: “I’m not sure if I was the soundcheck for his vintage ribbon microphones during maintenance or if he was deliberately recording my songs, but eventually we had an album’s worth of material together.”
Recording took place at both Quad studios and later at McCarthy’s home using tape, analog gear and vintage ribbon mics with mastering by Heba Kadry. The resulting songs certainly have a nice, analog wall-of-sound feel, especially with the multiple overdubs of Juilliard graduate Christina Courtin on strings. Drummer Matt Chamberlain adds solid bottom to the acoustic guitar and vocal tracks by DeGarmo and McCarthy’s electric guitar. DeGarmo herself has a pleasing alternative or folk rock voice not unlike Tanya Donnelly or Kim Deal, and also plays Lowrey organ and ukulele. Filling out the group are Britt Daniel (vocals), Michael LaValle and Charles Spearin (bass) and Gabriel Cabazas (cello).
“Cavaliers” starts off in a somber mood with very deep drum beats and low-tuned guitars, over which DeGarmo’s sweet, high vocals sit comfortably. In our digital world, hearing music recorded to tape takes a little adjustment, as the bottom tends to be more prominent without that crystalline yet somewhat unnatural digital sheen. Once I became aware of this I was more than happy to take the ride.
“Lately” features an unusual ukulele and strings combination. DeGarmo’s vocals create heart-aching overdubbed harmonies that feel quite natural, as if you’re in the room with her. “Run” like the other songs on this album builds an interesting percussive track from drums along with what sound like glasses, bells, Indian drums or table tops. On this track McCarthy plugs in his fuzz guitar and accompanies DeGarmo with squonky abandon. This song in particular has a Kate Bush level of experimentation, which I love.
“Another One” allows DeGarmo’s vocals to again explore their “sweet spot” while still filling all the nooks and crannies with percussive sounds and tricks; Chamberlain’s drum kit especially sounds big and deep. “Full On” is a touching ode to a broken relationship in which the narrator appears to have the upper hand with yet another solid and interesting beat. DeGarmo’s vocals here reminded me of somebody, and I finally thought of Rickie Lee Jones, who I’ve always revered.
“Forever, For Good” features a string-heavy wall of sound and feels like a more traditional pop tune, if slightly overloaded. For this one DeGarmo’s voice is somewhat shoehorned alongside all the other instruments, but her duet with Britt Daniel brings the tune alive for me. “Paper Wings” is the somewhat pensive conclusion with plenty of “air” for DeGarmo to spread her gorgeous pipes, though the electric guitar is a tad overdriven for my taste.
I don’t know how much credence to put in the Les Ailes Origin Story (that’s a LOT of ribbon mic testing!) but as a debut album this blew me away, and I can’t wait to see where DeGarmo goes from here.
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