If “the cradle of the stars”, The Louisiana Hayride, was still being transmitted live and direct from the stage of Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium each Saturday night, the chances of Blanche’s eerily seductive country-gothica being beamed weekly to a transistor radio near you would be pretty damn high. Instead, they’ve had to make do with that bastion of the everyman, the BBC, recording their performance at the second annual Electric Proms this October supporting country legend Charlie Louvin for BBC Radio Two’s Bob Harris’s Country Show.
In 2003, this band of dapperly dressed individuals with their sepia-tinted, depression-era charm was the unintentional by-product of Detroit’s explosion into garage rock frenzy. Thankfully, the days when front man Dan Miller’s connection to Jack White, through his former groups Goober and the Peas and Two Star Tabernacle, were considered the most noteworthy fact about Blanche are long gone.
In the intervening three years since Blanche’s critically lauded, hauntingly beautiful full-length debut If We Can’t Trust the Doctors was released, Miller along with his co-vocalist / bassist wife Tracee Mae, multi-instrumentalist David Feeny on pedal steel (and permanent co-production duties), Lisa “Jaybird” Jannon on drums and Patch Boyle’s replacement on banjo/autoharp “Little” Jack Lawrence (also of the Greenhornes and the Raconteurs) appear to be here, there and everywhere.
The band has been amazingly busy in recent years, from the couple’s appearance in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, as Luther Perkins and his wife Birdie, to three quarters of the group backing Loretta Lynn on her Grammy-winning album Van Lear Rose, not to mention Lawrence’s touring and studio commitments for the Raconteurs. It’s amazing Blanche ever finished laying down the tracks for their second album Little Amber Bottles. Then, when it’s finally in the can, to discover that your North American label, V2, has folded and the search for a new record company (as it turned out, new kids on the U.S. indie block Original Signal Recordings) is on, must have meant utter frustration. But there’s no need to worry folks, because the wait was certainly worth it.
Recorded in Detroit with Feeny and in Nashville with Mark Nevers (Lambchop, Calexico), Little Amber Bottles continues to build upon the ghostly-country groundswell of Blanche’s excellent debut, while bringing a lysergic maturity to the back porch party. A party, which blends a fuller garage-surf-psych, rumble with echoes of those roguish, reverb-laced duets Lee Hazelwood cut with Suzi Jane Hokum and Nancy Sinatra.
Opener “I’m Sure Of It” compellingly evokes Hazelwood’s playful duets with a quartet of swooning strings underscoring the Millers’s mysteriously sensual repartee, while the following number “Last Year’s Leaves” entwines surf guitar stylings and the country-twang of Feeny’s pedal steel (excellent throughout) around Dan Miller’s husky growl to great effect.
Yet it’s when Blanche walks straight up and knocks on death’s dark door that the real strength of Little Amber Bottles shines through. Hushed drums and a lulling mandolin set the scene for a traditional tale of murderous love on “The World I Used to Be Afraid Of”. Tracee Mae’s sweet vocals lead for the second time (“No Matter Where You Go”) on the haunting, electric blues soaked title-track, narrating a lost love’s attempt to seek a laudanum-induced solace. Lawrence’s duet with Tracee Mae on his self-penned, banjo-pickin’ number “O Death Where Is Thy Sting” sends shivers down your spine before segueing into a version of ‘30s country great Wade Mainer’s humorous gospel hootenany tune “I Can’t Sit Down” about a restless newcomer to heaven. Which is definitely a tad lighter in mood but only after taking that extra step through the door.
“If our debut was about life throwing you in a ditch and thinking about why these horrible sad things happen, I guess this is about pulling yourself out of that ditch,” explains Miller. ‘Nuff said.
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