by Brianna Caleri
When Aaron Winston was asked to play at The Mohawk in 2017, he scrambled to get a group together. Within a week, Russel Taine Jr. went from a solo project to a band. Three years after that, the dreamy alt-rock band is leaning more into its country identity with four Austin-centric singles about summer in the city. The two released so far, “Sister Sister” and “Blue Jean Baby” offer Austinites some much-needed reassurance via serious nostalgia.
(photos by Brianna Carleri, Russel Taine Jr. and band, 2019)
Winston started writing songs as a teenager, eventually adopting the pen name his grandfather used in correspondence to the United States from Moscow during the Cold War. His decision was a little intellectual, and a lot because he liked how it sounded; two key elements of the band’s future efforts. Now it inspires a conversation starter in the perpetual fan question, “Who is Russel Taine Jr.?” And while it may just be a happy coincidence, naming the band for a semi-fictional member anchors the group to their southern rock forebears (remember Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band?).
“Sister Sister” wastes no time in introducing the mysterious ghostwriter, slipping the band name into the lyrics as a way, Winston says, of reminding new audiences who they’re watching at local venues. In context as the first of four related singles, it has the unintended effect of staking a claim to a new, more purposeful identity. The track explicitly mentions Austin and it’s “hot summer nights,” but, lest the lyrics get too on-the-nose, sprinkles in charmingly confusing images like a demure woman’s “Rorschach grin.” Little intellectual twists maintain the group’s usual air of delicate fantasy over the song’s retro southern skeleton. Lots of delay and effortless arpeggios wash a haze over soulful organ and what might have been a screaming guitar solo is set back into the distance of the mix.
Winston clarifies the titular “sister” isn’t any woman in particular, but represents “any number of relationships” over time. This one is about nostalgia; a feeling best reserved for weak memories about strong feelings. It’s about sharing the tiny moments that build our identities, and the vagueness that makes them relatable and reassuring. The story told is a bid for reconnection. Emotional intimacy in the simplicity of summer is something many of us are missing right now while keeping our distance.
“Blue Jean Baby,” released on July 1, provides a foil to “Sister Sister,” with a shoutable anthemic chorus any band would be tempted to use for a show closer. Despite a more energetic presence, it’s overall lighter fare. The leading lady of this crowd-pleaser skews more toward the femme fatale. Like her, the electric guitars are grittier, but a riff runs through the song to nail down the kind of mellow reverie that ties together the Russel Taine Jr. catalog. This one in particular is packed with southern tropes: blue jeans, a tight sundress, standing on docks, and even dueling guitars. Against the muddy bass is jangly rhythm guitar that brings flashes of Tom Petty’s California to Texas.
Of the two tracks, “Blue Jean Baby” offers a simpler message, about dancing all night. It’s the one to sway along with while grilling for two and looking forward to the return of cookouts for twenty. Following the reassuring “Sister Sister,” it seems to seems to say we don’t always have to take ourselves so seriously. Summer hits are the ultimate form escapism, but in this case, the escape is in our own backyards. It’s not so bad to be stuck here, after all.