There is more than a touch of magic in the luminous vocal harmonies powering the soulful roots pop of Winnipeg combo Sweet Alibi. Let’s just say goosebumps are inevitable.
Whether the voices of Jess Rae Ayre, Amber Nielsen, and Michelle Anderson are tightly braided together, as they are in the super-sticky title track of their dazzling fourth album, Make A Scene, or are ornamenting Ayre’s lead on the gorgeously propulsive and contemplative “Slow Down,” Sweet Alibi’s phrasings are at once their main attraction and chief calling card.
Of course, when you’ve been playing together consistently for more than a decade, as these Western Canadian Music Award winners have — their album We’ve Got To scored 2014’s Roots Duo/Group Recording of the Year — you’re destined to etch out a distinctive sonic groove that leverages everyone’s talents.
So, while Ayre and Nielsen handle the lion’s share of lead vocals on Make A Scene, Anderson steps up with electric guitar, swapping the banjo favoured on previous albums to abet Sweet Alibi’s crack rhythm section of Alasdair Dunlop and Sandy Fernandez.
“We did a lot of preproduction with those guys,” Nielsen says of her band’s bassist and drummer, noting that Dunlop has been with them since the beginning. “Sandy really helped us get a feel for the songs and help make the album sound coherent.”
Though it sounds effortless and accessible, Make A Scene was not created without its challenges. For one thing, the group started recording in summer 2019 — just pre-COVID-19 — albeit with terrific co-producers Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg, best known as members of indie-pop squad Royal Canoe who produce under the Deadmen moniker.
“Then the pandemic just closed everything down,” says Ayre who, like Nielsen, also plays guitar. All three women write songs. Ayre continues: “We wanted to perform these songs for audiences, so we decided to hold off on release until we could play live.”
On the plus side, their producers “Were willing to try things out, take things apart and put them back together,” adds Anderson. “While we were recording, we really experimented with different sounds and parts.”
These electrifying aural adventures will be obvious to Sweet Alibi fans who have followed the band through previous records, all of which have enjoyed airplay on satellite and terrestrial radio. Several of the band’s songs have charted, most recently Ayre’s highly personal “Confetti” which occupied the Top 20 of CBC Radio 2’s national chart for an impressive eight weeks and is included on Make A Scene.
As Ayre candidly explains, the swaggering, horn-driven, and lyrically sassy “Confetti” was inspired by an ugly familial spat that erupted over inheritances as her grandmother was dying. “It reminded me of a story I had heard years before about an Austrian woman who was found with all her life savings shredded like confetti around her in retirement home as a way to show that she was fed up with how her offspring put money before family.”
On the nimble, synth-boosted “Really Great” — also previously released and featuring Nielsen on lead vocals — the theme is decidedly more upbeat though not without gravitas. “That song is inspired by honest, hardworking people who are sacrificing their comfort for the greater good, doing what they believe is right.”
Elsewhere, there is the mournful yet heartfelt ballad “What Were You Dreaming,” written for a friend of Nielsen’s who died. The sadness inherent in the song is ultimately teased out, via five syncopated and repeated “la, la, la, la, las,” into a celebration of life. “We played around a lot with harmonies on that song,” Ayre says, “and the result is something quite new for us.”
Ah yes, those glorious, distinctive vocal harmonies which elevate Sweet Alibi while ensuring Make A Scene is jam-packed with spirit and soul. “Our singing comes about quite naturally, partly because we’ve been playing together for so long,” says Anderson, friends with Ayre since junior high. The pair connected with Nielsen around 2009 “to hang out and jam. And we became a band that day,” laughs Ayre.
“It’s nice to be able to share this music with a wider audience,” adds Nielsen. “A lot of hard work and commitment went into making it. We are very committed. And I’m really looking forward to what we’re going to do next.”