Blackberry Belle – Neumu

8/10
by Jason Korenkiewicz
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With the release of their sophomore album, Blackberry Belle, much has changed for the Twilight Singers. In addition to parting ways with Columbia Records and joining eclectic indie Birdman Records, the group also replaced many of the musicians who contributed to the debut album.

Former Afghan Whig leader and key Twilight Singer Greg Dulli always imagined the group as an amorphous collective that would evolve dependent on the requirements of the songs. On Blackberry Belle he has assembled a group of veteran musicians who have helped him to accomplish this vision — and, as a by-product, to get beyond his fascination with American soul music and finally live up to his promise and become a songwriter and arranger of the first order. The production values, performances and individual song arrangements featured on this record create a pensive and gritty atmosphere that hearkens back to the finer recordings of Leonard Cohen and other bittersweet songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s.

Blackberry Belle’s first two tracks, “Martin Eden” and “Esta Noche,” are good examples of the change in the dynamic of the Twilight Singers. The initial verse of “Esta Noche” is pushed by the pulsing ring of a phone, understated vocals, percussion, and a yearning guitar line that gives the song a subdued but wistful sound. Things hit full stride during the final chorus when a New Orleans-style horn section joins in before the band fades out, leaving only the ringing of the unanswered phone.

The first true rave-up on the album — and obvious radio single — is the third track, “Teenage Wristband.” The song calls upon the past rock swagger of Whigs classics like “Gentleman” and “Crazy,” but this time around Dulli lets the band carry more of the musical load. Instead of screaming and hollering the blues in an attempt to captivate the listener from the first note, he holds off his wailing until the last chorus. When he explodes, the band follows, and the moment carries a much stronger emotional punch than either of the previously mentioned Afghan Whigs tracks. The true hook in this song is the addition of backing vocals during the break, leading to the last chorus by former Prince protégée Appollonia Kotero and Petra Haden of that dog fame. The performances of both singers combine to provide a sweet counterpoint to the fiery lead vocals during the last stanza and add an anthemic crescendo.

Co-written with Jesse Tobias, “St. Gregory” is a far cry from Tobias’ previous work with Alanis Morissette and teen-pop pianist Vanessa Carlton. “St. Gregory” features gentle swells of finger picked guitar juxtaposed with ready-made dancefloor beats. The results aren’t startling or novel, but the true draw here is Dulli’s frank and brutal lyrics. Recalling an incident where he was jumped and beaten to the verge of death in Austin, Texas years ago, Dulli whispers, “They love me down in Texas/ My home while I’m away/ God knows that I’ve got my reasons/ For every muthafuckin thing I say.”

Fifth track “The Killer” is a song where the production skills of Squirrel Nut Zippers’ producer Mike Napolitano truly take hold of the listener. Using a style that he employed successfully with Joseph Arthur on the critically acclaimed album Redemption’s Son, the verse pulses and vibrates with Rhodes and Mellotron before the choruses explode with searing guitar work — as well as lap steel by noted Memphis bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart. Napolitano melds these seemingly disparate pieces together to create an exquisite soundscape and centerpiece for Blackberry Belle. Here the listener is given full view of the vitality and immediacy that such Twilight Singers newcomers such as Napolitano and Hart bring to the project.

Without a question “Fat City (slight return)” is the standout track on this album. The composition effortlessly fuses the lyrical potency of songwriters like Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen with the rock-infused rhythm and blues that was mastered by Prince on Sign o’ the Times. Shambling piano rollicks along with a heavy percussive backbeat that sets the groove for a chant-along chorus of the first order, replete with Stax-style call-and-response backing vocals from Appollonia. If this were the last track on Blackberry Belle there would be no question that the listener would be sent away happy. Fortunately, we are blessed with one more, “Number Nine.” Former mid-’90s grunge kids will salivate for this country soul duet, as Dulli is joined by former Screaming Tree frontman and blues journeyman Mark Lanegan for a song that is both plaintive and uplifting.

Blackberry Belle is, to date, the highlight of Dulli’s 16 years of recordings. The addition of seasoned musicians to his collective has allowed Dulli to focus more on the craft of songwriting and to allow his performance to complement rather than drive the record. Given the pedigree of the members, it is no surprise that this group of Twilight Singers has lifted Dulli’s music to new heights.

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