Blanche, "Little Amber Bottles"
Detroit-based alternative country band Blanche hasn't released anything since this 2007 gem, which is a shame, because it's absolutely full of life. Little Amber Bottles covers a wide range of moods and atmospheres very effectively, making smooth transitions between despair, hope, listlessness, and cheer. I'm not particularly a country music fan, but the way the band blends country and alt-rock with a haunting shadow of Southern Gothic style captures my ear and the eye of my mind.
The album gets a rocking kick-start from the very first song, "I'm Sure of It." The song is an energetic duet, one of many on the album, between guitarist Dan John Miller and his wife, bassist Tracee Mae Miller. His deep, easy voice and her high, flutey one layer beautifully over one another, insisting eagerly, "I'm sure of it, I'm sure of it, there has to be a cure for it."
Mournful "No Matter Where You Go" manages to be slow and fairly sad without dragging along. Tracee Mae's voice travels in a cabaret lilt over banjo and piano as the song builds to a pounding bridge that ends in a sharp dropoff of both vocals and instruments, effectively illustrating the dread and disappointment they feel: "Don't you know the conscience never can be fooled? That shadow follows you, no matter where you go."
The title track, "Little Amber Bottles," appears to be a cover of a 1920's-era song, but I have been able to find exactly zero information on the subject, so we'll have to assume. Blanche's updated version has an exhausted, sun-baked feel to it somehow, with delicate guitar interludes and an absolutely throbbing musical chorus. While the first few songs on the album tackle the dying city theme with an almost religious conviction against it and a fervent determination to turn things around, "Little Amber Bottles" captures the perspective of someone already caught in the crumble. "I pray for days to pass, another empty glass."
The tempo picks right back up after "Little Amber Bottles," with an absolutely delightful resurrection of the lost trope of "murder songs." "The World I Used to Be Afraid Of" is a jaunty number driven by mandolin and lap-steel guitar, led forward by Dan John's irresistible lyrics; his love has refused to give her heart to him, but her death in the frozen Detroit River brings him to peace. "The world I used to be afraid of doesn't scare me anymore, 'cause I know the things that matter are behind another door."
Perhaps my favorite song on the whole album is actually an old gospel song, "I Can't Sit Down." You might know it: "(Sit down.) I can't sit down. (Sit down.) I won't sit down. (Why don't you sit down?) Well, I can't sit down, for I just got to Heaven and I gotta walk around." The song's just good sunny fun, with a bouncy traditional gospel bassline and a conversational duet.
"Exordium," a short instrumental piece, gives way to "The World's Largest Crucifix," which bears the heaviest emotional weight of the whole album. It's doleful and haunting, by turns nostalgic and angry. Out of that thunderhead, day breaks at the first notes of "Scar Beneath the Skin," an easygoing, reassuring five minutes of sunshine, where we finally understand that no situation is absolutely hopeless. "Memory that used to burn so bad is giving in; Now the one that made it sad is just a scar beneath the skin." And with a rousing refrain of "It's gonna fade away," the song builds to a cathartic, refreshing climax, with guitar and mandolin finishing high over rumbling drums.
This is an album I usually listen to straight through, and hardly notice when it starts over and plays through again. I hope that someday, the members of Blanche find themselves all in one place again and record another album, because the thirteen songs on this album are just not enough for me.