We admit it — The Spin definitely has a thing for the way great rock 'n’ roll pits opposing forces against each other. When it’s done right, the marriage of opposites can produce something like what we saw Friday night at Mercy Lounge, where Those Darlins celebrated the release of their new full-length Blur the Line. Being longtime fans of the Darlins, The Spin got off on the way the Nashville rock group has updated their music by subtly changing their band dynamic.
They’re a classic rock-guitar quartet, with the intertwined axes of Nikki Kvarnes and Jessi Zazu making room for Nikki’s drolly psychedelic melodicism and Jessi’s combination of rhythm and lead. Throw in the stoic but expressive drumming of Linwood Regensburg with new bassist Adrian Barrera’s in-the-pocket playing, and the result is a band who balances rock ‘n’ roll classicism with idiosyncratic expression.
Friday night's festivities began with an opening set from Music City's most nondescriptly named music band, Nashville transplants Music Band. With a sound that is infinitely better than their name, Music Band blasted through some psych 'n' roll grooves, including — according to a friend of the band — a significant amount of new material. Alicia Bognanno-fronted newcomers Bully — who are among our favorite new bands in town — followed, playing one of their first sets as a quartet thanks to the recent addition of lead guitarist Kyle Hunter. Hunter does a good job of fleshing out Bully's tight little tunes, with Bognanno's bubblegummy vocals tunefully anchoring Bully's grunge-pop sound in the Kim Deal/Kim Gordon tradition. The slinky, languid blues of Adia Victoria felt like a peculiar choice for the third slot, we thought, but Victoria's rhythm section — featuring former Heavy Cream drummer Tiffany Minton and former Black Belles bassist Ruby Rogers — was sleek and locked in. Maybe on a different bill Victoria & Co. really would have held our attention, but with our antennae set to receive loud, full-on rock 'n' roll, their set felt incongruous, and the crowd felt restless for a lot of it.
Blur the Line is an evolutionary step ahead for Those Darlins — the way we hear it, the record takes the band’s message of self-empowerment to new levels. If there’s a slightly reflective, downcast air to Blur the Line, the way the band performed the new songs was clean, forward-looking and satisfying on a formal level. Regensberg’s drumming never overpowers the overall performance, yet he guides the band, and provides equally appropriate background vocals. Barrera, who looks like he could have played bass for Faces or Mott the Hoople, does straight-man duties with a '70s rocker’s imperturbable mien.
Dressed in white, Jessi sang the set’s opener, “Ain’t Afraid,” a Blur the Line track. “There’s a tumor growing on my body,” she declared. And here’s where we remind you of those opposites we mentioned earlier — Jessi combines energetic and ascetic impulses in her songs and onstage presence. She reached out to the crowd with a slightly manic expressiveness, but she’s a self-contained performer. On the other hand, Nikki — dressed in purple and black — sings in the cooled-out voice of a girl-group vocalist, as if she were channeling Mary Weiss along with The Cramps’ Poison Ivy.
Throughout the set, the band rocked out in a variety of modes, moving from mutated Sun Records-style rockabilly to blithe '60s pop. Nikki and Jessi sometimes shared a single mic, like The Beatles used to do, and played their amalgam of styles for the adoring crowd. Another track from Blur the Line, “In the Wilderness” sounded even more like David Bowie, T. Rex and Mott the Hoople than it does on the record. “Screws Get Loose,” the title track of the Darlins' 2011 full-length, registered as the sardonically optimistic pop tune it is, while the new record’s “Western Sky” came across as the Darlins’ fusion of ‘60s and ‘80s pop.
Drawing from Blur the Line, the band made the most of the groovy, spooky changes of “She Blows,” which reminds The Spin of a modern take on late-’60s California rock — perhaps Those Darlins will one day cover Spirit’s “I Got a Line on You.” As for cover versions, the group showed the good taste to essay Alex Chilton’s “Free Again,” a tune Chilton first recorded for his 1970 solo album. Its theme of regeneration and liberation fit in with the vibe of Blur the Line.
The Spin got off on the band’s sonics — Those Darlins integrate guitar noise, Jessi’s keening, impassioned lead vocals and Nikki’s single-note leads into a style that is rooted in rock basics. Nikki took the mic for “Night Jogger” and showed her super-cool, self-contained, post-rockabilly persona at its best, while Jessi contributed a lot of frenzied guitar. The night drew to an end with the new record’s “Optimist,” and Jessi thanked Darlins fans everywhere. “I can’t say how grateful we are for everything and everybody in our lives,” she said. “Everybody helped us, really.” The set ended with the cheerfully diseased, ‘50s-style rock ballad “That Man,” another Blur track. The song mentions “that maggot brain where nobody looks the same,” and “That Man” is a typically ambivalent view of the way human beings interact.
It was late, but the crowd howled for more. Those Darlins complied by bringing up members of opening acts Aida Victoria and Music Band for a suitably unhinged version of Lou Reed’s old Velvet Underground drug-euphoria tune, “White Light/White Heat.” With Regensburg laying down a flat, steady beat that original Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker would endorse, Those Darlins & Co. gave the song an extended workout. The night closed with “Be Your Bro” from Screws Get Loose, and it was simultaneously loose and uptight — just another example of how Those Darlins make any number of rock ‘n’ roll contradictions work to their advantage.