Little Amber Bottles

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If We Can't Trust the Doctors' dusty drama brought the members of Blanche acclaim and opportunities: the band supported Loretta Lynn on Van Lear Rose, toured with the White Stripes and Calexico, and Dan and Tracee Miller appeared in I Walk the Line. Though these commitments -- not to mention Little Jack Lawrence's stint with the Raconteurs -- delayed the band's second album, it was clearly time well spent. Little Amber Bottles is the work of an even richer, more experienced band, pairing the masterful atmospheres of Blanche's debut with powerful songwriting and outstanding production. Less self-conscious and more versatile than they were on If We Can't Trust the Doctors, Blanche switch easily from mood pieces like the swampy instrumental "Exordium" to "The World I Used to Be Afraid Of," a darkly witty, downright rollicking murder ballad with a heart full of darkness and a twinkle in its eye. Just why the song's character is so cheerful and how he won his beloved makes for a typically twisted, and wonderfully written, tale from Dan Miller. Little Amber Bottles tackles many of the same themes that Blanche delved into on If We Can't Trust the Doctors -- faith, love, and redemption (or the lack thereof) -- but this time the songs are more urgent. The album is full of stories of outrage, big and small, personal and universal: "Last Year's Leaves" is an elegant and bitter kiss-off; on "A Year from Now," Miller insists that "all these tears will help someday," but sounds unconvinced as the song grows increasingly turbulent. "No Matter Where You Go"'s character sketch of a hopeless narcissist is as subtly insistent as a nagging conscience, but "What This Town Needs" is blunt and brash, hitting home big questions like "How can you sleep at night?" with equally big guitars. Musically speaking, Little Amber Bottles casts a wide net, touching on everything from punk to gospel to bluegrass. Recorded in Nashville with Mark Nevers and in Detroit with Dave Feeny, these songs show off Blanche's abilities to their fullest. The Millers may have played Mr. and Mrs. Luther Perkins in Walk the Line, but on the album's duets, they feel like Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. "I'm Sure of It" is a study in contrasts, pitting Dan Miller's nasal sneer against Tracee's breathy drawl as the song goes from simmering verses to roiling, rocking choruses. The title track's narcotic glow and Feeny's delicate, molten pedal steel (which is stellar throughout Little Amber Bottles) nod to countrypolitan's rootsy glamour, while "I Can't Sit Down" is joyfully old-timey, all close harmonies and revival-ready hollers. Blanche's cover of "Child of the Moon" transforms the Rolling Stones' psych pop classic into a winsome, slow-motion waltz so successfully that they might want to think about doing a full-fledged covers album. Crucially, all these nods to Blanche's influences end up enhancing the band's uniqueness; rooted equally in the traditional and more experimental sides of Americana, country, and rock, Little Amber Bottles expands what a Blanche album can be, and it's a joy to hear.

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