Tele Novella
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Tele Novella Travel to Art-Country on ‘Poet’s Tooth’

Tele Novella are more Brian Wilson than Hank Williams on Poet’s Tooth, a pop band with compositional sophistication waiting to get out of their Austin city limits.

Poet's Tooth
Tele Novella
Kill Rock Stars
6 October 2023

Tele Novella’s lead singer and primary presence, Natalie Ribbons, owns a vintage shop in Lockhart, Texas, not far from Austin. The nature of the business and its location are strong indicators of the kind of music the band makes. Tele Novella’s new album, Poet’s Tooth, is a vintage boutique of alt-country—let’s change a letter and make that art-country—that falls just outside both Austin’s city limits and Austin City Limits.

Poet’s Tooth is full of thrifted and upcycled sounds, and it displays a generally unabashed fondness for what once was and no longer is. The album also has that quality peculiar to vintage shops—the good ones, anyway—that are run by people who weren’t alive when the things they sell were made. At first, these places can seem ironic, cutesy, or precious (and they always seem to smell the same), but as you spend more and more time inside, the proprietors’ sincere and unpretentious affection for the goods they’ve rescued and assembled emerges. Cutesiness mutates into charm, and the preciousness takes on a sense of authentic value, which is, to some degree, the value of memories contained in these curios.

One thing you’ll find almost immediately on entering the Poet’s Tooth shop is the curio that is Ribbons’s voice, which has lovely timbre and texture but also has a yelpy thing that might seem like an affectation. It probably comes naturally to her, and it doesn’t matter either way. The mannerism suits her, and there are moments on Poet’s Tooth when it aligns perfectly with Tele Novella’s music and lyrics, like how she half-yodels the word “broom”—”broo-oom! broo-oom!”—on the chorus of the LP’s cheeky and winsome lead single, “Broomhorse”. Her delivery not only echoes a donkey’s bray but also lends itself to the inescapable image of a kid in a second-grade theatrical presentation, lurching around the stage on the titular broom horse while another kid plays a cigar box violin.

There’s almost no question that Ribbons takes some of her vocal style, consciously or not, from Neko Case. (Case’s forebear and one-time collaborator, k.d. lang, seems like she might be back there somewhere, too.) Indeed, the whole Tele Novella sound and mood might initially put you in mind of Case, a partial inventor of art country, after all—but there are significant differences. Case’s voice is a powerful reverberant whopper, “good and fucking loud”, as Case once called it, with the weight, hunger, intensity, almost predatory relentlessness, and—when she allows herself to soar—graceful beauty of the red-tailed hawk she sings about on “Star Witness” (one of her most beautiful and affecting songs).

Ribbons, on the other hand, as her last name suggests, is gentler, lighter, softer, and she virtually never belts the way Case does. The sound of Case’s records is lusher than Tele Novella’s, although that isn’t to say Tele Novella’s music lacks depth, heft, or seriousness. The album’s opening song, the poignant “Young & Free”, is a sort of anti-fanfare that announces Poet’s Tooth’s main theme: the nostalgia of youth, both for what you were born too late to have known (hence starting a vintage shop, so you can collect what you missed) and for what you haven’t yet lived long enough to experience.

“Young & Free’s” “sadness for things you haven’t yet seen” sets a somber tone, but it’s a lovely melody, and as its lyrics unfold, they brighten. Ribbons insists that sadness is no excuse for giving up hope and withdrawing from the world. You’ve got to get on your broom horse and start prancing around the stage of your existence, then take the chance of climbing into a trench coat on the shoulders of your cigar box violinist and see if you can disguise your way into an 18+ show. It doesn’t matter if you feel or look foolish or if the disguise fails and you’re found out and sent home. The notion that you would play this life safe, as grownups will admonish you to do, and make a Plan B for when your dreams fail is simply inadmissible. You should put all your “Eggs in One Basket”, as the fourth song is titled: “Go after that which your heart seeks until it’s mastered,” Ribbons urges us—even if it means getting your heart broken, which happens on Poet’s Tooth more than once, with particular ruinousness on the startlingly bleak “Rodeo Clown”.

It takes a bold singer to appoint herself as a dispenser of advice to her audience. That’s why Ribbons’s bouts of vocal and lyrical loopiness are so essential to Tele Novella’s project on Poet’s Tooth. She doesn’t preach or scold. She simply joins in the collective longing, her voice breaking with uncertainty. Meanwhile, the musical settings surrounding her words and voice are a comfort, anchored in old-timey musical forms that keep the record’s tone warm. There are frequent echoes of Patsy Cline-era country and campfire balladeering, and Tele Novella borrow plenteous instruments of yesteryear: autoharp, nylon string guitar, something called a “garden weasel” which you can Google if you must, the simulated sound of a horse’s hooves clopping, and “field recordings” (to quote the album credits) of noises and sounds that invoke bygone days.

Listen more closely, though, and Poet’s Tooth reveals itself to be a richly textured, carefully produced LP, mostly by the band’s percussionist, Danny Reisch, who puts the art in their art-country. Tele Novella are in good company on the pop-leaning roster of Kill Rock Stars, even if, on the face of it, they seem a more natural fit for Bloodshot Records. There’s more Brian Wilson than Hank Williams on Poet’s Tooth, a pop group waiting to get out of their Austin city limits. That might be a way of saying that there’s no such thing as art-country. It’s a chrysalis out of which other music emerges.

Perhaps, then, a closer comp than Neko Case would be an act like the Scud Mountain Boys, who quickly regrouped after three alt-country 1990s albums to become the Pernice Brothers of the 2000s when they made some of the decade’s loveliest indie records, influenced by both chamber pop and the easy-listening frequencies of 1970s AM radio. Like Tele Novella, the Pernice Brothers were also unafraid to be bookish. Joe Pernice was getting an MFA in Creative Writing around the time he started the Scuds (e.g., one of his songs is derived from the poet Charles Simic). For their part, Tele Novella not only slip a second “L” into the novela we expect, establishing their literary bona fides; they also make an adroit Dickinson reference and ornament a lyric set with the word “pulchritude”.

Above all, what sets Poet’s Tooth apart from country is the songwriting. Tele Novella demonstrate compositional sophistication that goes far beyond country: diminished and augmented chords, minors where you expect majors; melodies that swoop and dive, taking advantage of Ribbons’s unusual vocal qualities and capable range; and chorus hooks that are unquestionably pop, not country, and will get into your head after a few plays. A good sign is that the one song among Poet’s Tooth’s ten that Tele Novella didn’t write isn’t necessarily among the best. The overall feel is of a well-connected group of musicians who understand and admire each other, are aligned in what they’re trying to do, and aren’t afraid to keep tinkering to realize what they’re after.

If perhaps a few of the songs on this endearing record might be slightly unconvincing—a couple drift a bit, a couple of others get too cute (and no song in any genre should include the word “pulchritude”)—they are by no means undernourished. The lesser tunes are like kids who didn’t turn out quite right, through what seems like not entirely the parents’ fault. That’s in keeping with Poet’s Tooth’s overarching theme of what it means to be young and yearning and afraid that you might never become what you dream of being—but the alternative is never to try to become anything at all.

RATING 7 / 10