This summer, a banner mysteriously appeared outside the building that houses Grimey’s, a popular record shop in Nashville. The black-and-white picture featured two nude girls flanked by two nude dudes. Faces were omitted. Limbs were tangled. And while the revelers were clearly standing, they were rotated 90 degrees, adding to the banner’s suggestive nature.
The fuzz-fueled country-poppers in Those Darlins revealed that the image was the cover for their third album, Blur the Line, but the ruckus was already reaching critical mass. The local Fox station posted the image to its Facebook page, receiving more than 200 comments debating whether the picture was “too risque.” The controversy wasn’t surprising.
“I know what Nashville’s like,” confesses Jessi Zazu, the group’s lead singer. “I grew up in the South. I get it. What I thought was cool was there were actually just as many comments defending it as there were against it. That made me feel pretty good. This is a day and age in Nashville where this image can start some controversy, but it’s about 50-50 straight down the line of people who think it’s art and think it’s porn. Discovering that was really awesome.”
The band’s plan was to give its hometown fans an early tease for the new record, and to force each person that viewed it to react to the image honestly. Those Darlins’ music has similar motives. This feisty crew, formed seven years ago in the nearby suburb of Murfreesboro, twists traditions that are oh-so integral to the cultural history of the Music City. Those Darlins deliver broken-down country ballads with snotty sneers. They roar through punk-ish rockers with winking twang. They’re savvy songwriters, and their primary goal is to craft tunes that are intense and honest. But defying Dixie conventions has become a key aspect of the Darlins’ identity.
“It’s really a natural thing that happens,” Zazu offers. “I grew up in the South. I think I’ve just lived my whole life going, ‘Wow, everybody’s so uptight about things.’ It’s funny. You can mess with people so easy. It’s kind of nice to have an atmosphere to rebel against. It gives you some sort of angle. The angle really isn’t to just be rebellious. It’s to point out, ‘Hey, not everything that you guys are preaching here is really making sense to everybody.’ The South has really lightened up a lot. It’s not like it’s that bad all the time. But there are still some invisible Southern lines that people live by.”
Following the 2012 departure of founding member Kelley Anderson, Those Darlins had to reconfigure. Rather than forcing the issue, they took their time to find a new groove, and that approach extends to Blur the Line. Recording for the first time in Nashville, they sound both more eclectic and more relaxed. Flush with fiery country fills, “That Man” is a feminist battle cry masquerading as a teary break-up song: “That man don’t own me / That man don’t want me,” Zazu sings, her curt, Loretta Lynn-ish croon sounding joyous instead of dejected. “Optimist” balances feral fuzz with a buoyant girl-group melody, allowing these sirens to sound sweet even when baring their teeth.
“We spent way more time on this album than we did with the other two,” she explains. “We had a lot of time off. It wasn’t crammed between touring and all that. It was more like, ‘We’ll do the album when we get the songs,’ and not the other way around. We’ve grown up a lot. We have a lot more patience than we used to, and it was just easier to focus than it’s ever been before. We’ve learned a lot about songwriting and recording albums from doing the first two. We just did it the way that we thought we could do it the best.”
Those Darlins play Saturday, Dec. 14, at New Brookland Tavern. New Brookland Tavern is at 122 State St. in West Columbia. Doors open at 8 p.m.; admission is $10. With Music Band, Say Brother. Call 791-4413 or visit newbrooklandtavern.com for more information.
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