Hold onto your cowboy hats, paper crowns and powdered wigs! Small-town Texan charmers Tele Novella are riding back into town with Merlynn Belle, another technicolor time-traveling record packed with all the quirky characters and dramatic scenery your quarantine dreams can hold. It’s been four years since last we heard a note from Natalie Ribbons and partner Jason Chronis, who made names for themselves in the bands Agent Ribbons and Voxtrot respectively, and their long awaited second full length album opens with a question that many fans may have been asking themselves: “Where did you go?” Judging from this new collection of mournful odes to witches, shrines and pearls, it sounds like they’ve been getting lost in the medieval fortresses and infinite deserts of the mind, like so many of us these days, but with a much more enchanting soundtrack.
Their namesake telenovelas and sister soap operas call to mind the highest drama – tears and treachery, love and hate, good and evil, youth and restlessness. Previous releases found the band delighting in plenty of restless dramatics as they romped through songs both haunted and fanciful, and their live shows often featured irresistible coordinated stage antics to match the music’s manic energy. But lately the concert-less days of our lives feel more monotonous than monumental, the collective mood leans more depressive than manic, and the sand through the hourglass has seemingly stretched into the desolate expanse of the Mojave itself. The Tele Novella show goes on, but this time dusty trails and tall tales have replaced the soap bubbles and swooning. Merlynn Belle stands as less of a telenovela than a western or a period piece populated by lonely cowboys riding through a tangle of tumbleweeds and broken dreams or frightened medieval maidens wasting away in unscalable towers as plague ravages the village.
Gone are the electric guitars and rollicking keyboards of their debut LP House of Souls, but opening track “Words That Stay” charms from the start with Latin flair and infectious handclaps. The super 8-shot music video finds the pair frolicking straight into the 18th century, hiding and seeking through the silken drapes, fine china, floral wallpaper and babbling lily ponds of a historic estate, in a frothy homage to frilly films of yesteryear from Barry Lyndon to Amadeus. Even from the confines of her corset, Natalie Ribbons’ melodies soar like a hot air balloon — warm, bittersweet and dizzying at every breezy turn. “Wishing Shrine” drops a wishful penny into the well of an old western town, with whistling to complete the spaghetti western vibes. “One Little Pearl” conjures castles and weaves ancient spells, while “Paper Crown” finds Natalie singing along to the strums of an angelic autoharp, “I want a love I can make with scraps on the floor.” Many of us have built relationships from less in these solitary times. The band ventures into sparser, more melancholy terrain here than ever before but indulges in a few booming Scott Walker-esque moments on “A Lot to Want.” Meanwhile, “Never” shines as the sweetest melody for the saddest word, floating over the ever-hopeful tones of a glockenspiel. “How can such a broken heart still be so eager to please?” Natalie wonders. The band may be as broken heartened about the state of the world as the rest of us, but fortunately for fans, they haven’t yet lost their will to please.
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