Album Review: Those Darlins – Those Darlins

Juli Thanki | July 16th, 2009

Those Darlins - Album Review“If you don’t want a wild one, quit hangin’ round with me/You knew right from the start that’s my personality/If you can’t handle crazy, go ahead and leave.”

Sound advice from Those Darlins, who burst on to the scene in 2009, having opened for The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. They subsequently captivated the masses at SXSW and Bonnaroo with their blend of country, rock, and punk, wrapped up in miniskirts and duct-taped shitkickers. For all their rock and roll swagger, however, the hearts of this Murfreesboro trio lie with the sounds of Hank Williams and the Carter Family; it’s their mutual adoration for these artists that brought Nikki, Jessi, and Kelley Darlin together in 2006.

The Darlins’ affinity for classic country music isn’t always at the forefront of their self-titled full-length debut album. First single and the album’s lead-off track “Red Light Love” is Buzzcocks-esque, while the rocking “Hung Up on Me,” with its opening line being a snarled “Pick up the goddamn phone!” is more riot grrrl than Ryman. However, the rootsy “Glass to You” reveals their debt to the oldtime sound, while Nikki’s deep and soulful voice on the sweet “Mama’s Heart” is vaguely reminiscent of Sara Carter.

The Carter Family, who would post flyers advertising their performances as “morally good,” would probably approve of cautionary tale “DUI or Die” even if they might shy away from the advice offered within: “Remember if you wanna drink and drive/Better find a boy to take you home for the night.” In a more overt nod to tradition, Those Darlins cover two Carter Family songs. “Cannonball Blues” gets a touch of the ’60s girl group sound a la The Shangri-Las or The Angels as the Darlins insert “ba ba ba”s in place of Maybelle’s guitar licks, and “Who’s That Knockin’ At My Window” is transformed into a rollicking barnburner with frenetic guitar and drums, but somehow remains immediately recognizable as a Carter Family song.

The album’s final cover and closing track is a fairly straightforward version of Uncle Dave Macon’s “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” that’s truer to the original than their Carter covers, but thanks to handclaps and singalong choruses, can be appreciated by an audience who wouldn’t otherwise spare a minute for Macon’s 78rpm recording.

The Darlins employ a wide variety of guest stars from all musical walks of life, from the Sparrow Quartet’s classically trained cellist Ben Sollee to the heretofore unknown but probably very illustrious “JTitty” on background vocals and belly slaps. These ladies are no slouches in the picking department themselves; with Nikki on the baritone ukulele while Jessi and Kelley alternate between guitar and bass, the record hums with the riotous energy of a live performance, and the listener can’t help but be pulled along for the ride.

It’s really hard to not like Those Darlins. Their music is whiskey-soaked fun—even a song about the hardships of poverty is smile-inducing thanks to barroom piano and catchy pop hook, not to mention its goofy title: “Snaggle Tooth Mama”—and no song displays this better than “The Whole Damn Thing.” A poptastic ode to drunken chicken consumption, it’s absolutely ridiculous, and also one of the catchiest songs of the year to date. Simple enough to sing along after one listen and irresistible no matter what genre you want to file it under, “The Whole Damn Thing” is very possibly the greatest song ever written about boozy binge-eating.

Those Darlins may be an acquired taste for those who didn’t spend their adolescence in their room listening to angry chick rock (guilty as charged), and hardcore country music purists may turn up their noses at the Darlins’ interpretations of the classics; but those whose music collection boasts an equal amount of Dock Boggs and Bikini Kill will fall in love.

4 Stars

  1. Rick
    July 16, 2009 at 10:34 am

    So Juli, do you think Hank III’s concert audiences would like Those Darlins as an opening act? Better yet they could tour with Unknown Hinson! Or even better yet all three could tour together and call in the PsychoPunkaBilly Revolution Tour! (lol)

    Those Darlins don’t sound like my cup of tea these days, now if I were back in the late 1970′s when I was listening to “The Runaways” it would be a different story…

  2. Juli
    July 16, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Rick, I think you might really like some of their not-as-loud songs (the Uncle Dave cover, “Wild One,” and “Mama’s Heart” come to mind, though there’s one or two others).

    And there are more than a few TD fans “of a certain age,” so don’t even try that excuse ;-) As a matter of fact, when I saw them live, I gave up my barstool to a white-haired old lady who seemed to be a big fan.

  3. Jon
    July 16, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    ” For all their rock and roll swagger, however, the hearts of this Murfreesboro trio lie with the sounds of Hank Williams and the Carter Family…”

    That might have been what brought them together, but it’s certainly well hidden on the album. More country music for people who don’t really like country music…

  4. Leeann Ward
    July 16, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Yeah…’cause Juli clearly doesn’t like country music.

  5. Leeann Ward
    July 16, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    …And Karlie doesn’t either. Heck, none of us do.

  6. Leeann Ward
    July 16, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    *Or, should it be “none of us does”?

  7. Drew
    July 16, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I gave it a chance, but sorry, just not my cup of tea.

  8. Stormy
    July 16, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I miss Bikini Kill. Bratmobile too.

  9. Jim Malec
    July 16, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Jon is the final authority on all things. Can we all just agree on that now and pay him his due praise?

  10. Kelly
    July 16, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Jon, I love how you can go on and on in other comment threads about how diverse the origins and styles of country music truly are and how no one is allowed to say that certain acts (like Keith Urban) arent country because they are marketed as country acts and country is this big melting pot and blah blah blah. Now, this isnt “country enough” for you…interesting.

  11. Jim Malec
    July 16, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    No, Kelly–Jon didn’t say it wasn’t country, he said it was country for people who don’t like country. Which implies that it’s not his idea of what country is, but doesn’t explicitly state such.

    Jon is the final authority on all things. Can we all just agree on that now and pay him his due praise?

  12. Kelly
    July 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    fair enough…i stand corrected.

  13. Leeann Ward
    July 16, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    They didn’t sound like they were for me, but after reading this review, I’ll be danged if I don’t give them another try.

  14. Jon
    July 16, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    An object lesson in the way folks read into what’s written. Where and how do Those Darlins sound like the Carter Family? They may love ‘em, they may do their songs, but they really don’t sound much like them at all, do they? Nor Hank Williams either. Which is what – and all – that I said about that.

    But my point, admittedly elliptical, was that in the meantime, there are sure to be Those Darlins fans here and elsewhere who will continue to sneer at country music which is certainly no farther away from the Carters and Williams – say, 80s arena rock-influenced or pop-influenced country – as “country for people who don’t like country music” (in other words, to use it as a “that ain’t country” criticism), because *those* influences aren’t from the kinds of musics that they favor. And they’ll do it without the slightest sense of irony or self-awareness.

    Note to Kelly: look at their website, particularly their bio, and and then tell me whether you think they’re being marketed as a country act.

  15. Kelly
    July 16, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Note to Jon: Much of the time, “marketing” isnt what the band describes itself as. Many country-centric or roots-oriented blogs are discussing these gals and that will often go much farther than if they have a page on cmt.com or if country weekly ever profiles them…besides, everything is country because its just a big happy melting pot, right?

  16. Jon
    July 16, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    “Note to Jon: Much of the time, “marketing” isnt what the band describes itself as”

    Actually, that’s pretty much what “marketing” means. “Marketing” indicates intent, and when a product marketed to one market gets picked up in another, like a medication developed and marketed for one purpose that winds up being prescribed for another, that’s noteworthy in and of itself. And besides, what do “roots-oriented blogs” have to do with country music? ;-)

    “everything is country because its just a big happy melting pot, right?”

    Uh, no. Wrong.

  17. Jenni
    July 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    I am pretty sure Those Darlins want to include everyone not just country folks, or hipsters or what have you. Have you seen their tour campaign (see their myspace on the right below the American flag.)
    It is an open invitation to all folks…it seems intended to throw out all the labels you folks are fighting about.

    And the fact that they have taken on an aesthetic that does not match other country artists should be seen as refreshing as opposed to intentionally nonconformist.

    Love these girls!

  18. Stormy
    July 18, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Jon: Juli only said that Nikki’s voice sounded vaugely like Sarah Carter’s in places and it does. She also said that they are derived from old time country and they do use a number of the same melodies.

  19. Jon
    July 18, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    “Jon: Juli only said that Nikki’s voice sounded vaugely like Sarah Carter’s in places and it does.”

    She also said that The Darlins hearts lie with the sounds of Hank Williams and the Carter Family – it’s right there in the opening paragraph of the review – and I don’t see how my observation that it’s well hidden is really debatable. They don’t sound like either (nor do I think they intend to).

    “he also said that they are derived from old time country and they do use a number of the same melodies.”

    They use a number of the same *songs*, but they still don’t sound anything like old time country. They sound like they and their press materials describe them – variously as pop, rockers, etc. – with a repertoire that includes some old-time country songs and traces of other country sounds here and there. I think “country for people who don’t really like country music” is a fair assessment, and it’s one that Juli brushes against in her comment about how they bring an Uncle Dave Macon song to “an audience who wouldn’t otherwise spare a minute for Macon’s 78rpm recording.”

  20. Stormy
    July 18, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Its not really well hidden though. The tracks I downloaded have that overall vibe and intrumentation. They have the same kid of love and feel for old country that OCMS does.

  21. Jon
    July 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    “Its not really well hidden though.”

    To anyone familiar with old-time country music it is. “Vibe” is just another word for “projection” here.

    “They have the same kid of love and feel for old country that OCMS does.”

    Thanks for making my point.

  22. Jenni
    July 19, 2009 at 10:44 am

    What is this arguing about?
    These girls are three COUNTRY girls making music about being COUNTRY. Their songs are simple and direct like both Hank and the Carters and the fact that they are not either a novelty band or a band afraid to admit other influences makes them the most inspiring country band at the present.

    Jon, have you even listened to the whole record from start to finish?

  23. Stormy
    July 19, 2009 at 11:13 am

    ZJon: In my case “vibe” means instruments and melodies.

  24. Jon
    July 19, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Iggy and the Stooges made music that was simple and direct, but they weren’t an old-time country group, nor did they sound like Hank Williams or the Carter Family. On the other hand, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones use a banjo in just about everything they do, but they aren’t an old-time country group either, nor do they sound like Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs. Taylor Swift uses more banjo on her records than Those Darlins, but she’s not an old-time country artist, nor does she sound like Hank Williams or the Carter Family, either. Instrumentation in and of itself is far too frail a reed on which to hang any kind of substantive similarity, and the same is true with melodies. “Projection” is still the right word to use here. People who claim that an act like Those Darlins or Old Crow Medicine Show or Devil Makes Three are making music that’s related to old-time country music have at most a cursory acquaintance with the latter, which is why words like “feel” and “vibe” crop up so often.

  25. Stormy
    July 19, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    But there is also the instrumentation and melodies.

  26. Jenni
    July 19, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    I think folks are missing the point…also, when “feel” and “vibe” are removed from musical analysis is the day the music dies.

  27. Jon
    July 19, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Stormy, it would probably be a good idea to read all the way through a post you’re replying to. FYI, the banjo is an instrument; I used it as an example of one, showing how instrumentation does *not*, in and of itself, create meaningful similarity. Unless you think that Ralph Stanley and the Flecktones sound similar because there’s a banjo in both bands. Same goes for melodies; you wouldn’t say that Jimi Hendrix was playing marching band music just because he played the same “Star Spangled Banner” melody as the US Navy Marching Band, would you? I hope not.

    “I think folks are missing the point…also, when “feel” and “vibe” are removed from musical analysis is the day the music dies.”

    Not missing the point, just disagreeing; those are two different things. And as important as “feel” and “vibe” are in people deciding whether they *like* some piece of music or not, they’re essentially worthless as analytical tools. Understanding something and liking (or dislking) it are two different things. I haven’t said word one about whether I like Those Darlins, I’ve said that their music is a far cry from that of Hank Williams and the Carter Family, which it is.

  28. Stormy
    July 19, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Jon: That is a simplistis way of looking at instrumentation, and ignores the fact that Ralph Stanley is an inspiration for Bela Fleck.

  29. Jon
    July 20, 2009 at 5:06 am

    Stormy, what other way of looking at instrumentation is there? Plus which, I’d like to know how you know that Ralph is an inspiration for Bela, and how that purported inspiration translates into an actual, perceptible similarity between the music each makes.

  30. Stormy
    July 20, 2009 at 9:39 am

    You can look at the overall instrumentation instead of hinging everything on a single instrument.

  31. Chris N.
    July 20, 2009 at 9:46 am

    The second sentence of Fleck’s official bio: “A New York City native, he picked up the banjo at age 15 after being awed by the bluegrass music of Flatt & Scruggs. “

  32. Jon
    July 20, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Stormy: “You can look at the overall instrumentation instead of hinging everything on a single instrument.”

    Uh, sure. Carter Family: 1 acoustic guitar+1 autoharp or 2 acoustic guitars. Those Darlins: 1 electric guitar+1 electric bass+1 baritone ukelele +1 drum kit. Where exactly do you see the similar instrumentation that leads to a similar sound? Hank Williams & The Drifting Cowboys: 1 acoustic guitar+1 electric guitar+1 upright bass+1 fiddle+1 non-pedal steel guitar. Same question.

    Chris N., I know you would never confuse Earl Scruggs with Ralph Stanley, and I’m betting you wouldn’t say that the Flecktones sound like Lester and Earl, either.

  33. Stormy
    July 20, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Jon: You find the similiarities in the overall sound of the instruments.

  34. Jenni
    July 20, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    I am pretty sure that even Kant would disagree with the idea that feel or vibe are not a part of the analysis of art.

  35. Chris N.
    July 20, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Aw, dammit.

    But a banjo sounds like a banjo, for crying out loud. There are different styles of playing but it still SOUNDS LIKE A DAMN BANJO. It’s not like Fleck plays the theremin and Stanley plays the glockenspiel.

  36. Jon
    July 21, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Jenni, tossing Kant’s name into the discussion doesn’t really help. If I feel that the vibe of Those Darlins’ music is similar to that of Bach’s “Wedge,” does that mean that their music is similar, or that a resemblance couldn’t properly be called well-hidden? Would you have learned something useful, or even accurate about their music as a result?

    Chris, yeah, a banjo sounds like a banjo, at least sort of. But I dare you to tell me with a straight face that the Flecktones sound much like the Clinch Mountain Boys.

    Stormy, your argument is circular. You claim that the overall sound of Those Darlins resembles that of the Carter Family or Hank Williams – who, BTW, don’t sound very similar to one another at all – because of the instrumentation, and then, when asked to explain how 2 almost completely sets of instruments sound similar, lean on the “overall sound” as evidence.

    I don’t believe that any of you, with the possible exception of Chris N., have much of an idea about what old-time country music in general, or the Carter Family in particular, sounds like. You like the *idea* of a self-described pop/rocker/riot grrl/cowpunk group sounding like old-time country music, but the idea and the reality are two different things.

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