Sixpence None the Richer, 'Lost in Transition'
Sixpence None the Richer may have the most depressing bio of all the 90s pop-chart toppers. After releasing a couple albums on contemporary Christian labels, they successfully crossed over to the mainstream with a string of breezy, chick-flick friendly pop songs. But, as was the case for so many artists from that era, money got in the way: Sixpence spent just as much time in legal purgatory--while labels bought them, sold them, and folded out from under them--as they did actually performing their music. A handful of their peers, like Beck and Fiona Apple, managed to survive similar woes; Sixpence didn't. They glumly called it quits in 2003, saying goodbye to an industry and an audience who never really understood them.
Which is a shame, because their music was consistently great. Songwriter/guitarist Matt Slocum wrote lyrics with poetic precision, capable of blithely skewering industry politics and exploring deep spiritual longing, often in the same song. Leigh Nash's earnest voice made up in expression what it lacked in range; ethereal yet grounded, honest and crystal clear. Named after a C. S. Lewis passage and drawing inspiration from poets like Pablo Neruda and songwriters like Sam Phillips, the band's songs held hidden depths that much of their audience missed.
Now, in 2012, they're back together with Lost in Transition. A quick perusal of the press materials shows that, yet again, this album was tied up after production for nearly two years before being released. And Slocum and Nash seem to be aware they're re-entering a scene that may have forgotten them. The horn-drenched opener "My Dear Machine" is one of the Sixpence's tightest power-pop tunes; it also serves a sort of double meaning, its narrator singing to an old neglected junkyard car: "My dear machine's been at it so long / Now it's time for another drive". For two musicians reviving their career after a ten-year break, there's little chance those lyrics aren't somewhat self-referential.
In fact, the theme of failure plays such a prominent role in Transition that 'Failure' is the title of one of its best tracks. "Time is not my friend anymore," sighs Nash, over Greg Leisz's haunting pedal steel, before repeating "I've failed to make it," over and over again as the song ends. Elsewhere, the Nash-penned "Should Not Be This Hard" masks its heartbreaking lyrics--about fighting for a failing relationship--with bouncy, sparkly instrumentation. Incidentally, Nash pens nearly half the tunes on Transition, more than any previous album. Her other highlight is the pop-country "Sooner Than Later", an unsentimental reflection on the death of her father. Victory has never been this band's M.O., but there's a humble vulnerability on Transition that shines through more than ever before.
Still, Transition is more encouraging than discouraging. Slocum and Nash clearly have a musical friendship that has survived the test of time. They're working with the artists and producers they want to work with (alt-country producer Jim Scott does great work here), and writing the songs they want to write. It's not perfect, but Lost In Transition may be the first album in 20 years that Sixpence None the Richer have made on their own terms. That's reason to celebrate.