The women of the Awful Purdies combine many years of musical experience, compounded by six years of playing shows together. They all sing, play and write, staying close to the modern folk music vernacular. What gets me about the Awful Purdies is that they come together and create something seamless and unique, despite their other musical projects and busy lives as women—mothers, teachers and a waitress. Without any overt feminist subtext to what they do, I can’t help thinking of them as being uniquely successful because they’re women. There’s no gimmick to it, no individual agendas or ego trips to act out. I suspect that they’re too busy outside the group to have time for the usual intra-band drama—they become Awful Purdies as a way to play hookie from their lives for a few hours; perhaps that’s why it’s called Hiatus.
Each of the singers brings something different into the sound. Katie Roche’s voice has an appealing hoarseness, with a jazz singer’s behind-the-beat phrasing. Sarah Cram sings a bit smoother, but can muster a brassy rock tone when called upon. Nicole Upchurch sounds a bit reedy, with a subtle, rapid vibrato. Marcy Rosenbaum’s voice has a raw, slightly nasal quality that is disarmingly open and unaffected.
Katie Rowe’s cello is only infrequently in the foreground, but holds down the bottom end of the arrangement. In fact the sound of her cello—recorded with remarkable warmth and presence by engineer Peter Becker—is the linchpin to the AP sound. When they come together in a chorus behind whoever is singing lead, they sound somewhere between a church choir and a female Beach Boys. Their ensemble sound completes the song; you wish there was more of it even when it’s exactly the right amount.
When Upchurch sings “she believes in perennials, she collects old things” she might be describing the group’s artistic mission. There’s plenty that’s original about these songs, but they stay rooted in the folk tradition without being over-constrained by it. It’s hard. Hiatus commands attention without ever raising its voice, it invites without ever trying to hard.