More than just a side project
Though Puss n Boots has played together since 2008, Sister only represents the second album released by the band, six years after their 2014 debut No Fools, No Fun. Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper formed the band as an outlet for experimentation and trying new instruments, and it’s clear they have been experimenting in the interceding years. Sister is vastly more layered and subtle than No Fools, and its beauty unfurls so slowly and unforcefully that it will convince you of its virtuosity without you even realizing it.
The mysterious instrumental prelude “Jamola” eases listeners into the styling of Jones, Dobson and Popper, slowly hypnotizing. The improvisational feeling of the song deftly eludes settling down as the guitar and bass meander around Dobson’s understated percussive framework. The song departs from the country style they adhered to on No Fools but maintains and sharpens the intimacy between the three musicians. “Jamola” hints at much more than it reveals until it easily passes into “It’s Not Easy” in which appear glimmers of their earlier twang tempered by lush vocals and the 2-4 drumbeat of a pop ballad.
Though the playing isn’t especially technically complex, the chemistry between Jones, Dobson and Popper makes each note and decision resonate. It is this resonance between all three members that gives the album such thrust, never dull, never dragging, but never racing you to the finish line either. Each idea deliberately unfolds and deepens as the album proceeds in a gently flowing current.
Some songs evince the particular feeling of peaks or turns along the route, points of transition that summarize what came before and point to what’s ahead. “Lucky,” the fourth song on the album, picks up the pace. The song is an amalgam of so many different instruments—drums (played with brushes that produce a softer hit than sticks but impart a fantastically firmer tone on this song), bass, guitar, at least one and at times several voices—that it seems like on the verge of chaos but instead, the voices amplify each other, lining up unexpectedly and wonderfully.
From there, the middle section of the album grows less subdued but no less understated. Though the album generally maintains its pace, the 53 minutes of the album can grow a tad repetitive. The rich harmonies and excellently unarranged arrangements define a distinctive sound for Puss n Boots, the second half of the album begins to blend into itself. However, it is a testament to their skill and solid identity that Sister features covers of songs by Paul Westerberg (“It’s a Wonderful Lie”), Tom Petty (“Angel Dream”) and Dolly Parton (“The Grass is Blue”), all of which they imbue with their personality so the album flows seamlessly.
Jones, Dobson and Popper all have successful solo careers, but just because Puss n Boot is a side project does not mean they don’t take it seriously. They are clearly putting in serious work into making the album innovative, cohesive and simply delightful to listen to. Listening to musicians who love to play with each other makes for some of the most enjoyable music out there, and Sister is surely among them.