Fortified by our hot-weather dietary regimen of watermelon, beer and cheese fries, The Spin
got down to The End on a sultry night perfect for a lesson in new-style punk rock. The Spin has, of course, followed Those Darlins since Nikki, Jessi and the recently departed Kelley Darlin were but Carter Family-loving, chicken-eating babes in the woods. Working with producer Scott Litt — who has helmed such Spin super-pop favorites as The dB's' 1981 Repercussion and R.E.M.'s Out of Time — the Darlins have a new full-length in the works, and are out touring with popsters Best Coast. Playing their first Nashville date in a while, they promised to show off their garage-pop chops, and the heat inside The End was both externally produced and a product of their charisma.
Opening band Psychic Hotline didn't disappoint The Spin, who was busy keeping to our regimen, minus the watermelon and cheese fries. Lead singer Jessica McFarland, who also makes a fine racket with her other band, Heavy Cream, displayed deadpan attitude as the group made its way through their clipped, brief tunes — The Spin didn't have a stopwatch, but we don't think any song topped two minutes. Guitar solos were kept to a minimum as the group kept alive the legacy of The Clash, The Adverts and The Vibrators. They maintained complete control, crossed the Red Sea of punk aggression and made a case for pure mania. As the words to one tune went, McFarland knew what she wanted and what she needed.
The Spin has seen some strange bands in our time, but we're not sure if we've ever seen anything quite like Atlanta's Black Lodge. Featuring not one but two bassists playing odd and somewhat gawky patterns — Jennifer von Schlicten and Karen Horn-Smith played unison lines that anchored the tunes without ever finding a groove, while drummer Adam Bruneau circled around the beat — this is a quartet worthy of a modern-day Charles Manson. If Manson were out on parole and intent on bad deeds, this is the group of fun-loving women he would choose to serenade his victims as he went about his ghastly work.
With roots in Goth and Throbbing Gristle — being the assiduous reporters that we are, we made a point to ask keyboardist Jennie Castillo about the Gristle influence, which she confirmed — Black Lodge may be geniuses for whom the constraints of rhythm, melody and coherence are shackles. At the very least, they were highly conceptual. Castillo, Horn-Smith and von Schlicten made unearthly vocal sounds, while Castillo played non-sequitur embellishments that reminded The Spin of Velveeta being drizzled over broccoli. They seemed innocent, yet their sound was eerie and disturbing. The Spin is no stickler for traditional musical values — that's just not rock 'n' roll — but Black Lodge challenged those values with every note. When a band's most accessible moment is a cover of proto-Oi! band Cock Sparrer's 1984 song "They Mean Murder," you know you're dealing with something very weird.
Those Darlins seemed like traditionalists after Black Lodge, and the band — featuring Nikki and Jessi on guitars, along with drummer Linwood Regensburg, bassist Spencer Duncan and saxophonist and percussionist Adam Schatz — displayed their mastery of Nick Lowe-influenced garage rock. Doing tunes from last year's full-length Screws Get Loose, they made such songs as "Tina Said" and the record's title track sound like the future classics they no doubt will be. Jessi and Nikki traded guitar moves, with Jessi stalking the stage and Nikki playing it cool, calm and collected.
The band showed off their influences with covers of Lou Reed's blithe "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" — Reed would have approved of the way they changed his "too darned fast" line in that tune to the more punkish "too fuckin' fast" — and Rockpile's "Pet You and Hold You," a vehicle for Nikki's fine vocal. Jessi sang a new song titled "Why Can't I," which sounded great, while Schatz contributed crazed saxophone licks throughout the set.
Apart from their songs and their matchless stage presence, Those Darlins impressed The Spin with their mastery of the basics — that mixture of dynamics and rhythm that Black Lodge seemed intent on leaving behind. Those Darlins are a great rock band and a great pop group, and The Spin noted no lingering country-Americana influence. As the Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, once wrote, these women have mouths on them: At one point toward the end, Nikki told the audience, "It's so hot, we may burn the pants off you, and in that case, you'll be cooled off and dancing." That may have happened all over town after the show was over, but the Darlins generated plenty of heat on stage, and kept their pants on.