What can I do to make you smile?” Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion asked as the curtains parted for their all-too-short Viper Room appearance. It’s an odd lyrical choice to kick off a set of heartbreak ballads and thorny rock songs, but one that makes sense: Guthrie and Irion make music that bristles with unresolved contradictions.
Their New West debut, “Exploration,” is built around the juxtaposition of Guthrie’s (the daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody) piercing country voice, which can be as brassy as Loretta Lynn’s or as muted as Emmylou Harris’, with Irion’s more subdued, urbane vocals. When the couple join in close harmony, as on the opener, “In Lieu of Flowers,” the result is akin to the Louvin Bros. At other times, such as on the updated train song “Cease Fire,” they approach the honey and vinegar tension of Richard and Linda Thompson.
A similar push-and-pull operates in their songs: The album’s title track opens with a gently mournful meditation contrasting the mission to Mars with social problems on Earth, then veers into a driving midperiod Beatles chorus whose refrain, “Going to be a nice vacation,” seems to mock the verse’s sentiment, finally ending in a dreamy coda as Irion’s slide guitar tangles with Eric Heywood’s pedal steel.
The band, boasting members of the Jayhawks and Son Volt, came together especially for the West Hollywood show, but even with scant rehearsal time settled comfortably into the tunes, with Don Heffington’s drumming providing an assured, easy swing. They were most impressive on the simmering arrangement of Pete Seeger’s “Dr. King” and the high, lonesome country of “Georgia Pines.”
At the center, Guthrie and Iron were sweetly charming, switching midsong between guitar and piano, passing a tambourine back and forth. In answer to the question they posed at the start of their show, all they needed to do to bring a smile to your face was play.
They will play Joe’s Pub in New York on April 27.