BY FRED MILLS
Truth-in-titling: Blur The Line is the operative term here, with the Nashville combo literally evolving before our eyes (ears). It’s like watching a fish slip from the primordial swamp onto the shore, which then shivers and twists its head around only to abruptly sprout legs and arms and then go marching up the path to kick the asses of some preppy amphibians. Okay, maybe I’m reaching a bit in my simile. Work with me here, okay? Given the startling, relentless evolution evidenced here, maybe we should just settle for “this ain’t your mama’s Those Darlins.”
Early on, circa 2009’s self-titled debut, the word was that the almost-all-gal band was a distaff take on the venerable insurgent country ethos (as epitomized by the Bloodshot Recs stable of mavericks). Fair enough; twang ‘n’ drawl was certainly a large part of the band’s sound, abetted by telling covers of both A.P. Carter and Uncle Dave Macon, and it was also pretty hard to overlook their moniker and their record label name (the delightfully blue collar Oh Wow Dang Records) in terms of presuming some serious hillbilly action going on. But by the time of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the group’s garage-punk roots were also on clear display, with reverby electric guitars as prominent as strummed acoustics, and some serious ‘60s girl-group vocals creeping into the mix as well.
With Blur The Line, the transformation is complete. While some may zero in on the loss of guitarist Kelly Anderson, replaced by Adrian Barrera, as potentially a key to the sonic changes, that notion misunderstands the dynamic that was already in effect. Truthfully, this is a fully-realized, mature, genre-traversing album that’s beholden to no single factor; that it’s also one of the best musical artifacts to surface right now, as we enter the final stretch of the annual what-are-the-strongest-releases-of-2013 sweepstakes, is irrelevant.
How do we love thee, Those Darlins? Let me count the ways. There’s the bluesy swagger of “Too Slow” and the deceptively folky album opener “Oh God,” both of which will please fans of the group’s early sound. Then there’s the fuzztone fracas of “Optimist” (boasting deliriously downer lyrics like “used to wanna have a ball/ all my friends they all run off”) plus the Nuggets-worthy “Baby Mae” with its tambourine, organ and—surprise—more fuzz. And then there are also tracks like “In The Wilderness,” which sinks a stunning Stones-style riff and a brazenly confident lead vocal from Jessi Zazu into an arena-friendly, flick-yer-Bic arrangement to provide the group with an obvious radio anthem; the spookysexycool “Western Sky,” aglow with ethereal jangles and lyrical peyote visions; and the poppy, insistent “She Blows,” with Zazu and her co-vocalist Nikki Kvarnes emoting with a gleeful urgency while the band explodes in a frisson of melodic guitars. In the final estimation, Those Darlins are neither the quaint Americana mistresses nor the latterday garage queens we might’ve pegged ‘em as. Somewhere along the line, this became an amazing band, and songwriting/arranging this masterful elevates Blur The Line to modern-classic status, fully justifying the 5-star rating applied at the top of this review.
Throughout, producer/engineer Roger Moutenot demonstrates the kind of aural wisdom he’s brought to other groups’ projects—Yo La Tengo comes to mind—by instinctively letting the songs dictate the sound rather than allowing some preconceived notion of the latter dominate the former.
Don’t take the CD off the stereo after track number 11, incidentally. A track 12 follows, and while it’s a minute of silence, track 13 then cues up, untitled (and without any lyrics on the CD booklet, unlike all the other songs). It’s low-key, kinda twangy, with some grungy guitar bits and dark lyrics that almost seem like they’re setting us up for the next album. To be… continued?
This is a ridiculous cliché, but I’ll say it just the same: play the goddam record LOUD. After you’ve listened, go out and scare up some wimpy amphibians and proceed with kicking their asses. It’s your evolutionary mandate.
DOWNLOAD: “In The Wilderness,” “Western Sky,” “And She Blows,” “Baby Mae,” “Too Slow”