Those Darlins started out covering artists like the Carter Family, Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, but you won't hear too many traces of "Keep On the Sunny Side" or "Waitin' Round to Die" on the band's latest album Blur the Line (2013). Instead, some of the record's songs--especially the menacingly droning "In the Wilderness"--call to mind a less roots-centric figure, New York punk legend Patti Smith. According to Jessi Zazu, singer-guitarist for the Nashville, Tenn.-based rock group, that's not accidental.
"She has been really inspiring to me and Nikki [Kvarnes] especially," Zazu said, "just because of her ability to continue to make music and art that is relevant to the time period that it's released in. And I feel like that's the thing that is disappointing in a lot of artists. ... They release music that's trying to be what they were in their heyday or whatever, and it just seems like they're trying to be something they're not."
Judging from Blur, Those Darlins doesn't plan on falling into that trap. The album leaves behind much of the country and rockabilly of the band's self-titled debut (2009) and builds on what music critic and Billboard contributor Robert Christgau called the "hooky, saucy, punky songwriting" of the 2011 follow-up Screws Get Loose. While the music draws from '70s punk and New Wave, the lyrics show an increased thoughtfulness while retaining the tart humor of the Darlins' earlier songs. Boiseans will get to hear the new Those Darlins when the band plays The Crux on Thursday, July 31, with Nashville pop-punk band Diarrhea Planet and local blues-rock trio Marshall Poole.
Those Darlins formed after Zazu met fellow founding members Nikki Kvarnes and Kelley Anderson at the Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp in Murfreesboro, Tenn. They bonded over a mutual love of traditional country, but never wanted to strictly follow tradition.
"We weren't trying to be a retro band," Zazu said. "We just really respected the vibe and the simplicity of the message. ... We just wanted to play [country music] in a way that felt more modern and more appropriate for us to do it."
In the band's early years, she added, not everyone recognized the distinction. Zazu and her bandmates found themselves on bills with groups in "that country revivalist world. We immediately were just like, 'Yeah, we stick out like a sore thumb. We do not fit into this world.'"
The patronizing attitude of men in that particular scene added to their discomfort.
"Nobody ever said this specifically," Zazu said, "but I kind of got the vibe from a lot of people that was like, 'Yeah, that's really cute, what you guys are trying to do right now, but you're never going to make it if you keep doing that.'... We hated that vibe; we just wanted to get away from it so much."
It's tempting to interpret Blur as a reflection of Those Darlins' struggle to break away. The first eight tracks on the album alternate between Zazu's songs of disillusionment and Kvarnes's songs of discovery and self-definition. The tension between the two perspectives gets resolved in the closing three tracks, in which Zazu sings about "mak[ing] our own noise" ("Western Sky"), finding love ("Too Slow") and letting go of fear ("Ain't Afraid").
Whatever you read into the album, Those Darlins' career has progressed steadily since those early days. As the band built a following, it began playing with groups more in line with its irreverent spirit, like the Old 97's and the Drive-By Truckers. Original bassist Anderson and her replacement, Adrian Barrera, have both left to pursue other projects, but Zazu feels that the current lineup--she and Kvarnes on guitars, Linwood Regensburg on bass and Duncan Shea on drums--has worked out well.
"People really love the new lineup," she said. "Anybody that did mention it [on the East Coast tour with Diarrhea Planet] only mentioned it in a positive way."
The Tennessean's review of Those Darlins' Sunday afternoon set at Bonnaroo 2014 testifies to the current lineup's effectiveness. "The final day of Bonnaroo desperately needs energetic acts that worn-out audiences can rally around," observed writer Dave Paulson, "and Those Darlins fit the bill--a garage rock gang that belts out 'We belong in the wilderness' when many attendees are tempted to return to civilization."
Plenty of other audiences will hear that message. The next two months will see Those Darlins tour from coast to coast. The band also plans to travel to China in late August and work on new material after touring wraps up.
Whatever Zazu and her bandmates come up with next, listeners shouldn't expect something they've already done.
"People say, 'Why don't you do more stuff like your first album?'" Zazu said. "I was 17 then, you know? ... If I was doing the exact same thing, I don't think anyone would even be listening to our music right now."