The Empress was recorded at Kingsize Soundlabs, the Carriage House, and Forty Below Studios; Eric Corne produced, engineered, and mixed it; and he also sings background vocals and plays percussion. Sara Petite sings lead and background vocals; Bobby Furgo plays piano, Wurlitzer, organ, and fiddle; Michael Kastner is on drums; Jeff Berkley on guitars; Billy Watts on electric guitar; Bob “Boo” Bernstein on pedal steel; and Jorge Calderon is on bass. The album was mastered by Mark Chalecki at Little Red Book Mastering. There are 11 songs in 41 minutes of sometimes raucous, sometimes tender moments, all written by Petite, save for “Forbidden Fruit” and “She’s Come Undone,” which she co-wrote with John Eddie and Mark Stephen Jones, respectively.
Now that I’ve got the details out of the way, let’s dive right straight into this one since that’s what Petite does from the get-go on the album’s opener: “God Save the Queen.” It all starts off big. Drums, bass, guitars, and organ lead us willingly through the intro to land smack-dab in the middle of Petite’s raw declaration of the state of being a powerful woman. She delivers bare statements of “I am” with nothing but her voice, followed by a punch from the instruments, that puts an exclamation point on the end of each line. Sounding ominous, Petite doubles up on her voice in unison for the second verse, “I am the night, I am the morn, the blessed kiss when you were born. Creation always burns desire, where there’s smoke, I’m raging fire.” At 1:22 a guitar solo breaks carefully over the edge, unexpectedly subdued, with echoes of another guitar track underneath it. At 2:17 there is a wonderful detour and display of letting go and letting loose in an otherworldly, ethereal sound that rises and falls, and seems to spin. The guitar and organ flow back and forth, barely missing each other. The drums tumble haphazardly, cymbals crash, the bass drives ever-present, until the whole thing fades and ends on one final, sustained note.
Moving along at a double clip, “That Was You and Me” starts off with a quick drum intro, followed by chunky, spunky guitar chords, supported by pedal steel filling in the gaps. The arrangement is upbeat and happy, which contradicts the lyrics, “All the times you left me, all the times I took you back. The he-said she-said fatal blow of a lover’s heart attack. Well, that was you, and that was me.” This was a troubled affair, a giddy, fast-paced wild ride that feels out of control. At 1:17 the guitar solo takes off over the solid bass line keeping pace with the drums, and the organ comes in here and there. The solo is purposeful and direct; it mimics the verse melody at times, with single notes and chords thrown in, loosening up just before Petite starts the last verse. Piano shows up now peppering in between lyric lines, and the last verse repeats, “I thought you were forever, I thought I couldn’t get enough. But crazy makes you crazy, it makes you crazy, it’s what it does. Soaked in sex, love, and alcohol, they say that’s rock ‘n’ roll, you play guitar but I’m the singer in this show. That was you, and that was me.’ Electric guitar takes us out to end the song.
“Tread Softly” opens slow to finger snaps, bass, and organ and I’m unsure of its direction. It sounds playful and carefree, but when she begins, Petite sings with a slow, burning ache reminiscent of Patsy Cline. And although it is old-style country, Petite’s lyrics are more suggestive and forward than those of that era. “Golden kisses on my breasts and down my spine. Tread softly on this heart of mine.” Pedal steel joins sweetly at :48; it is a gentle undertow, yet firmly encourages the relationship into deeper waters. Pedal steel takes the lead at 2:25 for an extended solo, becoming bolder as it mixes with the organ and guitars, revealing surprising choices in the sweeping motion that eventually leads back to the bridge. Petite’s voice shines in this song, especially in the lower notes, which resonate richly and complete the picture of an enraptured lost weekend.
The title track ,“The Empress,” begins steady as a heartbeat, Bernstein repetitively plays one note on the keys, one straight line, like history across time. The fiddle joins in and moans under the weight of the story to be told, until the keys break into chords to take up more space. The mood lightens as the pace seems to quicken, the fiddle is brighter, and all of this leads us full gallop to Petite’s poetic, half-sung half-spoken opening lines, “The Empress rides her horse along the beach, through gusty winds and quantum leaps. Long brown hair, pale yellow dress, the ocean sprays, she’s soaking wet.” The guitars flow together in single-note fashion and move me forward in the timeline. I have no trouble seeing this scene in my head; it’s epic. The story is the power of woman through the ages, her strength and resolve, her ability to rise above. And after it’s all said and done, she confesses that love is her backbone and determination, and the reason for it all. Well, now, what else is there? “I did it all for love, I did it all for peace. I did it all for grace and humanity. Sometimes I was the sinner, sometimes I was the saint. I hung, I swung, I screamed, I burned, I walked the plank. The Empress rides with a sword of justice by her side.” At 2:16 the organ plays a cascading and descending solo that ends just before Petite delivers the final verse. It is so full of words, it demands that you listen, it builds in imagery and might, both disturbing and enlightening, until finally, she affirms “I did it all for love, my friend!” I love this song for its courage, it’s my favorite on the album.
Other tracks worthy of multiple listens are “Forbidden Fruit,” “Bringin’ Down the Neighborhood,” “Le Petite Saboteur,” “The Mistress,” “She’s Come Undone,” “I Want You So Bad,” and “Lead the Parade.”
The album releases on June 6 at the Belly Up, from 7 to 9:30pm; find ticket and event information at https://bellyup.com/calendar/#tw-event-dialog-13143638