The first song Jessica Lea Mayfield played on Tuesday night at Iota was “Blue Skies Again,” a punchy blast of alt-country-pop optimism that found the young, braces-wearing singer-songwriter proclaiming, “This heart of mine is ready for the spring … Suddenly I can see blue skies again.”
It was a sign of things to come about as much as the opening scene of a horror movie in which the pretty young things happily frolic before getting systematically disemboweled.
Things weren’t so gory at Iota but the mood quickly got darker and rarely brightened up throughout the 70-minute set that drew heavily from her second album, this year’s “Tell Me.” The next song was “Somewhere In Your Heart,” which Mayfield (who turns 22 this weekend) and her three-piece band played as a plodding dirge. Like most of her songs it is tuneful and a supreme bummer about all the worst kinds of love. She stared blankly ahead, eyes fixated on nothing in particular and forced out the opening lines, “My mind is weak and twisted/Alone with my fantasy.” It ended it in a much worse place: “I’d rather die young and be forgotten/Than live to grow old loving you.”
Her songs aren’t tearjerkers; they are bridge-jumpers. She doesn’t so much sing as she sighs, casually exhaling her uniformly heartbroken lyrics with a soft twang, like she’s been too mentally beaten down to put any more energy into it. How a 21-year-old has already experienced a few lifetimes worth of romantic misery isn’t entirely clear and it sometimes shows in lyrics that drift toward cliche. “I guess we have to play the cards we’ve beendealt/And I got nothing,” she moaned on “Kiss Me Again,” one of the many dreamy songs that eventually turned turbulent when Mayfield’s acoustic strums took a backseat to guitarist Richard Kirkpatrick’s showy leads.
Volume swells were as common as tales of bad relationships. Mayfield played a pair of songs by herself and while they were far from chipper there was some airiness to them. With the full band it was like being plowed over every few minutes. But heavy subject matter calls for a heavy soundtrack and Mayfield clearly has her ambitions set well beyond being just a girl with a guitar. And when it all came together on “Run Myself Into the Ground,” which despite its dreary title balanced out depression with a touch of defiance — all with a lovely vocal melody in the chorus — it was clear that Mayfield has the talent to break out, if she can stop getting stuck on the same note.