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
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
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.