As niches go, “female rockabilly hepcat” looks to be wide open. Not anymore. Say hidy to Melissa Swingle, the singer-guitarist who puts the Bride (not to mention the smarts) in this North Carolina trio. Imagine a female Randy Newman crooning sly, jacked-up songs about double-wide trailers, right-wing militias and reckless driving as self-expression in a lazy Mississippi deadpan drawl, and you’ve got something close to Trailer Bride’s blue-collar country-soul.
Trailer Bride’s sophomore effort, Smelling Salts, isn’t as immediately astounding as the high points of the group’s unjustly obscure 1996 debut. But it’s a satisfying album that wears well, despite getting off to a shaky start with “Quit That Jealousy”. Where Swingle usually walks that fine line between yeeha and yayhoo, “Quit That Jealousy” collapses into schtick: “Baby, take off that shirt/Lemme see your hairy chest.”
But Smelling Salts has plenty to make up for that. Swingle is a clear-eyed, precise lyricist, although it can be easy to miss amid the jaw harps, harmonicas and jittery-tempo twangy guitars. Lend a close ear to the languid “South Of The Border” — “Silence is golden, maybe for the sane/But late-night radio static is silver like rain” — and before you know it, her couplets will be following you around after dark like the moon.
Swingle’s monochromatic voice is admittedly limited, but she’s such a crafty singer and writer that she gets plenty out of it. Credit Mike Beard’s production, too, for applying the reverb just where it’s needed and nowhere else. “Cowgirl” draws out the last word of each verse into an eerie, ambient echo, making it sound as if Swingle is singing from a pitch-black windswept plain.
One of the more intriguing dichotomies at work here is the conflict between home and hearth on one side, and the stage on the other. First comes “Porch Song”, about a homebody who can only sing “true and right” to her child on her porch, “’cause I get scared under them honky-tonk lights.” But by the end of the album, Swingle’s more extroverted side is back up front with “Show Bizness”: “Hey, let’s go to Memphis/Break into show business…We got show business in our blood.”
The conflict is not abstract to Swingle, a mother balancing the demands of music and family. But she’d better get used to it: Demand on the music side is likely to be on the way up for a long time to come.