Blackberry Belle – Indie Workshop
Greg Dulli is not the Prince of Darkness, but his ingenious fusion of Motown soul and balls-out punk – which, along with unapologetic stabs into the heart of decadence, is what made The Afghan Whigs so great – makes one wonder if he didn’t sell his soul to the Prince of Darkness. His post-Whigs project, The Twilight Singers, dispenses with the punk and focuses on the brooding soul. And while the first full-length, 2000’s Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers, was generally compelling, the second, Blackberry Belle, makes one wonder if the aforementioned otherworldly contract has expired.
Apparently Dulli is going the way of Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, who either can’t keep his musicians interested enough to stick around for more than one album, or feels the need to steadily infuse new blood into the proceedings. Unfortunately for Dulli, the old blood is much missed. Gone are the ethereal and balancing vocals of Harold Chichester (Howlin’ Maggie) and the textured production of duo Fila Brazillia. Gone also are the affecting blues of “Clyde” and “Love,” or the vulnerable funk of “Annie Mae.” The songs on Blackberry Belle reach for the same trippy, amphetamine blues, but for the most part end up groping about in the dark for the simple and consistent charms of the previous release.
The opening track, “Martin Eden,” starts out excellently, with characteristic, heart-crushing bleakness (“You know how I love stormy weather/So, let’s all play suicide”) – but the song is sunk by an uncharacteristically wispy chorus. “St. Gregory” is similarly affected – a haunting Spanish guitar and complementary melody is frustratingly undermined by a jarring bungle of bongo-like rhythmic effects. “Teenage Wristband” sounds entirely too much like “The Twilite Kid,” one of the weaker tracks on Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers, while “Feathers” sounds like something that couldn’t make the cut on the Whigs’ last LP, 1965. The instrumentation, once again, is diverse – horns, organ, pedal steel, violin, even banjo – but it’s mismanaged and only sustains the monotony of the album. There are some fine tracks: “The Killer” effectively rocks and seethes in classic Whigs’ style, “Fat City” is sweat-and-twine sexy, and the last track, “Number Nine,” impressively showcases Dulli’s down-home blues croon and features some outstanding backing vocals from Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees) and especially Petra Haden, whose soulful wailing parallels Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.”
Dulli’s voice has always hovered somewhere over the key, like a helicopter trying to land on Everest during a snowstorm. That’s his charm. We need his straining and courageous incisions into the dark side of all things human. Blackberry Belle doesn’t prove that he’s lost his blade, or that he has to sell his soul to get it back. It just proves that, this time around, the steel wasn’t quite sharp enough to get the job done.