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Blackberry Belle – Delusions of Adequacy

Delusions of Adequacy
– Adrian Pannett, 11/10/2003

“Black out the windows / It’s party time / You know how I love stormy weather,” declares Greg Dulli from the very start of this sophomore outing from The Twilight Singers (the ex-Afghan Whigs frontman’s sometime side-project now turned full-time concern), clearly and deliberately reminding us that the smartest self-loathing lothario of grunge-soul hasn’t shaken off any bad habits during his last few years in obscurity. Which is of course a good thing. Back in his 15 minutes of fame (circa The Whigs’ 1993 album Gentlemen), Dulli was the suave savage ying to Kurt Cobain’s dishevelled self-destructive yang, and his presence has been sorely missed since The Whigs called it quits in 2001 citing “geographical separation.” Fears that Dulli would sink as an honourable captain with his shipmates have thankfully proven unfounded, after all has there ever been anything “honourable’ about this king of sleaze?

Those fearful that Dulli might have however shredded the stylistic blueprints that the Whigs drew up over six albums should rest pretty easy, in fact much of Blackberry Belle could pass as a lost Whigs album if it weren’t for the personnel involved. Eschewing the overbearing electronic embellishments that marred The Twilight Singers’ 2000 debut, Twilight as Played By the Twilight Singers, and avoiding the highly-polished production values of The Whigs’ swansong 1965 (perhaps out of financial necessity, now that Dulli has returned to indie-label land), Blackberry Belle is a logical sequel to The Whigs’ often-overlooked 1996 opus, Black Love. Hence the musical exteriors are smeared in thick layers of garrulous guitars, sweeping strings, New Orleans brass, and enough funky-keyboards to knock out a decent 70s Stevie Wonder record with. It’s not an easy mix however, there’s nothing here that’s quite as immediate as tracks from The Whigs’ all-time 1992 classic Congregation or from the radio-friendly 1965. This is an album that takes a lot of listening before Dulli’s sweet and sick brand of soul-music really sticks in your ears. Some initial spins – as with Gentlemen and Black Love – are perversely off-putting, as Dulli’s thick often grinding arrangements and bellicose approach to singing seems to squeeze his heavy-melodies until the pips squeak.

Keep scratching through the sonic surfaces, however, and the songs really begin to bleed with sanguine lust and damaged reflection. The sweeping weight of “Martin Eden” and the thrusting chug of “Teenage Wristband” recall past-Whigs hook-sinkers like “What Jail is Like” and “Going to Town” with admirable force and flair. The whispery acoustics, looped percussion and husky low vocals of “St. Gregory” hold together naked allegories of Dulli’s last few years in the wilderness; “I heard your woman left you / I heard you quit your band.” Elsewhere on “Decatur St.” we find Dulli cruising Issac Hayes-style through the shady side of town confessing that “I’m no good and I like it” and “Maybe my soul is like a vacant lot.” Unlikely musical fusions don’t come much more impressive than on “Papillion,” where Dulli’s ensemble twist a country lament (with banjos no less) into a mangled meltdown of clavinet-heavy funk strutting. Providing some respite, the gorgeous “Follow You Down” is a sublime slice of serenity (with sultry guest backing vocals from Nikki Crawford) wherein Dulli’s brutish bravado slides into mournful regret; “Somebody put a gun in my face / Go ahead I said “erase’.”

The closing “Number Nine” brings out both the best and the worst of Dulli’s musical and emotional visions. Casting himself as the devil, with guest Mark Lanegan (The Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) vocalising his inner-monologue, we find Dulli confronting (“I ain’t myself anymore / I’m crawlin’ around like a whore”) and comforting his internal demons (“Come on boy / Don’t be such a baby / And maybe / I’ll bail you out / One more time”). Musically, we’re also given a treat as a well as torture, as the slow-building barroom ballad tumbles into a cringe-inducing Pink Floydian coda (complete with awful wailing vocals a la Dark Side of the Moon from guest singer Petra Haden). Dulli, it seems, still can’t help sharing some of his most perverse personal tastes with the record-buying public.

Musically rich (perhaps too rich) and lyrically dark (maybe a tad too dark), Blackberry Belle is the work of a man crawling out of a long-imprisoning hole, only to find nothing has really changed but the lines on his face and the number of friends and ex-lovers he could once rely upon. A flawed, but consistently compelling, comeback from one of the 1990’s most charismatic scoundrels.

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