Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Black Belles Hex Their Self-Titled

The Black Belles has been in need of a self-titled release for the better part of a year. The wait was worth it. Produced by Jack White, the release has his fingerprints all over it but not his pawing palms.

Sure, sometimes they come across as a Third Man Records processed act. But the girls overcome the design with their own tenacity and talent.

Their ability to bridge garage rock and soul from the Sixties and bring it into the modern era can't be understated. They have more power behind fewer notes than countless acts have with an entire album, after they soften up rock into pop with guitar.

These girls are different. They twist, bang, shred, and howl out melodies that mash together, pretty and wicked. So much so that pretty wicked is what you're left with in describing portions of the full-length debut.

The Black Belles are minimalistic in measure, frightening in their mix.

If The Dead Weather had died and then were resurrected as four wannabe goth belles with a taste for sparsity and an addiction to vintage equipment, they would sound almost exactly like this. And while some might think that somewhat shameful because they could be even more, we can all hope that the self-titled release is just a stage floor for these girls build upon. I think it will be. Mark my words.

While plenty of people are dinging the Black Belles for all the hype and showmanship, Olivia Jean (vocals, guitar, organ), Ruby Rogers (bass), Christina Norwood a.k.a. Tina NoGood (synth), and Shelby Lynne (drums) deserve more credit as an act. Not many bands can pitch their careers as "not suitable for mass consumption" with the intent of being consumed by the masses. It's all very obvious, but no one needs to apologize.

Even the B-side video, Lies, supposedly lost, rediscovered, and released a week in advance of the self-titled album, was anything but accidental. It sets a record pace by reminding us how erratically compelling they can be. Not bad, because Lies (or any other previous single) won't show up on the album.

Instead, the Black Belles bust out with a collection of 11 standouts and sit downs. The standouts include Leave You With A Letter, Wishing Well, Pushing Up Daises, Not Tonight, and In A Cage. The latter is getting the most attention because it carries the biggest sound with crunchy guitars, meaty bass lines, and staccato vocals. They also owe more to their producer on this track than any other song.

It's the In A Cage chorus that hints at a musical depth six feet deeper than what they deliver here. Leave You With A Letter underscores their potential for harmonies, which is odd because the album version doesn't sound like their live performances. Jean snarls out the lyrics on stage.

Wishing Well, on the other hand, is my personal favorite in its arrangement, splitting and flipping the guitar riffs, bass lines, and relaxed vocals nicely. It will have the longest shelf life.

Some of the other songs won't. The Wrong Door is catchy, but needs the warmth of vinyl to make it work. Breathing Down My Neck is half solid, with the distortions so much more compelling than the whole of the song. And The Tease is okay, except it really doesn't.

The Black Belles are strangely fiction or maybe just stranger than. 

I could take or leave HonkyTonk Horror, which pre-teased the album as a single. Pushing Up Daises would have made a stronger showing. The band powers through it with much more conviction. HonkyTonk Horror was probably picked because it includes more packaging.

The girls themselves are interesting "creatures," as their bios often call them. With the exception of their home cities (and sometimes just home states) Third Man hasn't given up much. Most of their bios are creative, catering to stories of witchcraft, nastiness, and an evil alliance made in reform school.

But some of it is grounded in truth. There is no reason to doubt that Jean is from Detroit, Rogers from Mississippi, NoGood from Nashville, and Lynne from California. I also expect one of their early interview stories is true too: they shared childhood pictures and the photos all look similar. Spooky, but not really.

The Black Belles Self-Titled Release Hexes 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The album is better than worth sharing, especially some songs more than others. And the case can easily be made that the Black Belles are more than the sum of one album. I thought it was great that the singles released weren't repeated on album. On the flip side of it, some of the singles are stronger than the tunes that sat down more than they stood up.

You can pick up the Black Belles self-titled album at iTunes, but also pick up Charlene II (I'm Over You) and What Can I Do? Both singles, along with their B-sides, belong on any playlist with portions of the album. Barnes & Noble has the vinyl release. Amazon has vinyl editions of both What Can I Do? / Lies and Stephen Colbert and the Black Belles - Charlene II (I'm Over You) bw Charlene (I'm Right Behind You).
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