ALBUM REVIEW: Tele Novella – ‘Merlynn Belle’: a quirky country-psych-folk charmer

NATALIE RIBBONS and Jason Chronis had been kicking around in various musical projects in Austin, Texas, but knew they could fashion something pretty special when they met and started creating tunes: ladies and gentlemen, we give you the medieval outsider country of Tele Novella. (Hey: it’s what they call themselves).

As the owner of a retro boutique and a rare vinyl hound, respectively, they knew that you could go exploring off the beaten track and pretty quickly find yourself dialling back the clock, finding as-new artefacts, clothes, records, still in the racks from decades before; forgotten, haunted. Another life at play. It’s the stuff of Stephen King and David Lynch, but it can also just be real and sweet and innocent too – just a life that saw no need to run gaily towards the next big thing, only to discard that in turn.

They released the hard-to-find-these-days House Of Souls album in 2016, and come February 5th you’ll be able to stop by on your way for a soda and pick up a copy of their second album, Merlynn Belle; also their first for Kill Rock Stars.

The two have fashioned up a pretty unique sound – one that touches with a post-modern knowingness and still an absolute sincerity on real deep old country, its sadness and yearning; also knowingly loving the slight absurdity of the form and glorying in it too, much like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion did with the beast of rawk ‘n’ roll.

The two recently relocated to Lockhart, Texas, (pop:12,698) where they eschewed the endless, iterative possibilities of modern recording. Nope, eight-track tape and one song written and recorded at a time. Whole takes, no splicing.

“Working with one song at a time allowed us to view each as its own world,” says Jason.
For her part Natalie had a whole set of stories to tell, stepped in influences as diverse as Marty Robbins – and Pentangle. “This is the first time I just let the songs be about real life … real people,” she says.

But that’s not all; there’s a spicing of a very European 60s’ pop cool, touches of psych; and the lyricism, for all its sweet yodelling delivery, often has a really personal and haunting edge.

Tele Novella, photographed by Julian Neel

Merlynn Belle opens in one of their singles from last year, “Words That Stay”; and thus sets the manifesto for the microclimate of the record. You can watch the sweet and offbeat video below: putting their vintage, twangy touch on a longing song. 

It’s a beautiful crossover of country, indie, and lofi, which also somehow has a knowing, continental aesthetic of the slight absurdity of … it all flowing through its veins; the seriousness of play. See Natalie and Jason in their powdered and periwigged pomp, quaffing, playing cards, pencils dangling from noses, in sweet and eccentric delight. The song has a beautiful haunting quality, deeply western (before the country got tacked on to the front); but also a real chanteuserie thanks to Natalie’s beautiful, bell-clear voice, with that Appalachian leap and drop, seizing your heart and taking it with you.

Lyrically, there’s the bittersweet tug of a friend, missing mysteriously: “Where did you go? Nobody knew you were gone” clad in “warm winter clothes in the summer heat”. There’s a whiff of flamenco, rhythmically; there’s even handclaps.

And now Tele Novella have transported you into their world, seamlessly. “It Won’t be Long” is a cute hoedown, Natalie caressing you with a story – about telling a story. It has its roots in that 2/4 shuffle of classic Nancy & Lee tracks such as “Jackson”: “I told a story, it began and then it ended / And in the middle you were hanging by a thread / Oh I could tell that you knew what was gonna happen / So I changed course and turned the clock right on its head,” she delights; clever and insouciant in just the right balance of shaggy dogginess.

“Never” is a straight(ish) country(ish) swoon, presented with the accoutrements of psych-lite: chiming 12 strings and vibraphones, over which Natalie yearns for something dear but lost, You suspect Claudine Longet or Harpers Bizarre would’ve done interestingly weird things with this, and it’d be a dusty, scuffed prize after a crate-dig in one of those towns bypassed by the interstate.

Written for her best friend after an unexpected loss, singer Natalie Ribbons says: “There’s really not much that you can do to alleviate grief, but getting to be there for her through the process deepened our bond.

“I saw her strength and big-heartedness all the more clearly after that experience, and it deepened my love and admiration for her.”

“Wishing Shrine” is swoonsome: a yearn with a Morricone whistle, a sun-scorched acoustic guitar, percussion seemingly coming from the sound of a jack being pulled from an amp; all the smoulder of Mazzy Star transposed into an A&M easy arrangement. Natalie is here cast as a returning prodigal, her dear one taking her to a wishing well, leaving their written requests. It’s a simple vignette rendered with style and prettiness and understatement.

On “One Little Pearl” you can really see the medievalist thing at play. It has that pre-Raphaelite quality of the English folk revival, played with Natalie’s vocal grace and those contrapuntal harmonies. She really is the kind of singer you’d put a single spot on; she has presence and performance and evocation written through her.

Natalie wants to be the jewel in the “Paper Crown”, she tells us, breathy; imagine Judy Garland fronting Belly. It’s rooted deeply in a Broadway Great American Songbook, given a sweetly indie rock twist. (And sweet is a descriptor it’s really hard to escape – with no pejorative cast meant at all – it really is bloody wide-eyed cute).

If “Paper Crown” has a Tanya Donnelly thing somewhere in its effect, then the following “A Lot To Want” is very much the Kristen Hersh flipside; darker, more atmospheric, fashioned from big timpani, dramatic organ colours and big vistas, hanging on Natalie’s vocal swoops, poetic lyricism and a pervading sadness: “Stepping on the cracks / Walking on the wrong side of the tracks.”

“Crystal Witch” gathers up skirts of crushed velvet, being very much of the psych-folk persuasion the title implies – the witch in question sounds like the sort of eccentric that populated The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and her crystal-eating propensities come swathed in the crackle of old vinyl, ominous chimes and fuzz guitar. It has an Espers quality: the sort of dark folk that lights your path into dusk woods.

“Desiree” isn’t a cover of The Left Banke tune, but is rather luscious. It’s clear open folk with a real Elektra tilt; there’s a lot of ASMR glimmer pinging and resonating on high, 60s’ organ lends another flavour to a very 1968 kinda chorus.

As the album opens, so it closes, with a single from last winter: we covered “Technicolor Town” here, if you wish to watch the video. It’s an evocative, downbeat closer, but lovely still. We find Natalie and Jason as vintage jailbirds, guised as mimes and lovers, enjoying popcorn at the local flicks.

The song and the video both play with pop culture referencing to really sweet effect; the Super 8 video feel; the way Natalie’s voice cracks towards yodel as she caresses us with her homespun love of her technicolour town. The song has the proper, old-fashioned country yearn of a track like Harry McLintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, both knowingly and yet lovingly; and while being wholly rootsy, there’s this very Gallic element to the French new-wave mime clowning, and a romantic chanteuserie to Natalie as well.

Natalie describes “Technicolor Town” as “a soft, sparkly and tender meditation on the deep love of place, regardless of how inhospitable it may be; a tipsy, coin-operated ode to being lost and found at the same time. Part lonesome western and part Renaissance Faire, presented with a straight face and humble sincerity.”

And that straight face and humble sincerity are a lot of the magic of this record. They have, quite simply, a belief in the power of song. There’s little hints of other musics stretching right back through indie and folk and psych to the golden age of Hollywood and the pioneering days of country, cardboard 78s on newsstands; but hey, none of us live in a bubble and when they’re at the top of their game, Tele Novella sound like absolutely no one else. If you found some of the songs here on a pink Island 45, you’d be made up; ditto others on the bright yellow of a 50s’ MGM 78. Timeless, quirky and utterly charming.

Tele Novella’s Merlynn Belle will be released by Kill Rock Stars on February 5th on digital download, CD, trad black and limited green vinyl; it’s available for pre-order over at their Bandcamp page, here.

Follow Tele Novella on FacebookInstagramTwitterSpotifySoundcloud, Apple Music and YouTube.

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