CD Review: Jessica Lea Mayfield — Tell Me; Playing The EARL, March 26 and Black Cat, March 29

Jessica Lea Mayfield
Tell Me
Nonesuch Records

By Al Kaufman

It may not be possible for Jessica Lea Mayfield to live up to all the hype she has generated with her second album, Tell Me.  Her first, 2008’s With Blasphemy So Heartfelt,  unfortunately sailed by without notice, and now critics —  and her record label —  are tripping over themselves to make sure that mistake does not happen again.

But Tell Me really is that good.  The Kent, Ohio native appears wise beyond her 21 years in her tales of loneliness, longing, desperation, and, ultimately, hope.  One look at her cover photo is all you need to know about her. With her blonde bombshell hairdo and an innocent facial expression that hints of come hither, she shows she is someone who knows how to play the game.

But she also has the talent to back it up. Tell Me opens with “I’ll Be the One That You Want Someday.”  The song begins with a sound that comes straight out of old westerns, then Mayfield creeps in with an achingly slow, sexy drawl that conveys vulnerability and intestinal fortitude. “I’d hold your hand but you do not want me/I’ll be the one that you want someday,” she coos to the idiot who spurned her.  She reprises her slow, sexy mood on the closing, “Sleepless.” With mostly just her voice and her acoustic guitar,  she lays her emotions out naked and raw. Accompaniment is unnecessary.

But Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced Tell Me (and also her debut), and is not content to leave Mayfield so exposed on every song.  Sometimes his tinkering works.  The screeching guitars and all around heavier sound that make up “Somewhere in Your Heart” demonstrate a PJ Harvey influence.  But the reggae-inspired techno beats on “Grown Man” only detract from the song, as do the beats and heavy breathing on the title track.

Sometimes the drum programming and loops are more subtle and enhance the melodies and that gorgeous voice, but one wonders if Auerbach really thought they needed any enhancing. As wonderful as this disc is, it would be even that much better if it were just Mayfield and her guitar.

Jessica Lea Mayfield plays The EARL in Atlanta on March 26…

…and Black Cat in Washington,  D.C. on March 29.

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