Album Review: The Southern Belles IV: Reprise by The Southern Belles

 In Features, Reviews

In 2015, Bo Burnham delivered a particularly honest reflection in the finale of his comedy special, Make Happy. Amidst an autotuned stream-of-consciousness bit, which both mocked and paid tribute to Kanye West, Burnham dialed back the audio and visual layering and spoke candidly with the audience. “The truth is my biggest problem’s you. I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself. I want to give you the night out that you deserve, but I want to say what I think and not care what you think about it.” It’s a statement that instantly resonated with artisans of all types. To them, Burnham encapsulated that eternal struggle between artistic expression and societal expectations. What you want to truly do might not always be the best path forward, but veering away from any type of change or evolution can also be disappointing, detrimental even.

For musicians, this has always been the case, from rising bands rebelling against sudden fame to legends who flip the script on their established sound in order to stay true to their desires. To this day, Radiohead still rarely plays their breakout hit “Creep” in concert. Bob Dylan himself had to contend with two different instances of fan revolts after going electric in 1965 and then trying his hand at gospel music in 1979. Change is not easy… even when necessary for an artistic purpose.

For The Southern Belles, opening their first record in over six years addressing that concern seems apropos. “If you take a chance, you might get burned\ If you never try, you’ll never learn,” lead singer Adrian Ciucci relays over a swell of baroque pop, a clear distillation of that artistic struggle that can also cover other facets of life, areas of improvement that go neglected and discouraged. In the past, Ciucci and his bandmates have opened their records with more forceful musical statements. 2012’s Sharp As A Knife opens with a nimble southern shuffle while Close To Sunrise kicks off with a joyous ragtime bounce. Their last record, 2017’s In The Middle Of The Night, put a thrilling blast of funk versatility right at the start of the record.


A half-decade later, the beginning to The Southern Belles IV: Reprise has a much more pensive and demure approach. Beginning with a vaudeville tone (which coincidentally sounds similar to Bo Burnham’s “Welcome To The Internet“), “Change” quickly moves into a melodic space rarely heard from the energetic quartet. It’s still forceful but in a way driven by emotion and clarity as opposed to technique and ambition. This approach sets the band up to tackle the daunting challenge of growth and transformation, something vital for a band still brimming with dynamic riffs and soulful grooves, but also seasoned by six years of personal progress and artistic exploration.

From the reflection of “Change” comes the promise of “The Road,” the central musical statement for the band’s return record that relays inspiration and encouragement over a pulsating groove. “The road is long\ It’s never easy,” Ciucci proclaims in a simple earworm which becomes a mantra of empathy and support by the end of the song. Backed by impassioned musicianship, the song surges with resilience and determination, a testament to the band’s knotty road over the last six years. But “The Road” doesn’t fall back on excuses or try to relitigate old issues. It looks forward and compels you to as well with its optimistic reassurance, letting you only look back in glances to see how far you’ve come and how far you can still go. The band threads a tricky needle here, never dripping into mawkish expression with the song, instead performing with such zest and sincerity that allows every word to resonate with precision.

After the resolute assertion of “The Road,” the band settles down into a nice pace which further explores their musical growth and progression. The third track “Savannah” unfolds gently, offering a soothing palate cleanser after the rousing opening to the album. “Pretending” follows next with a crafty lyrical approach to romantic disarray that displays a bold sense of self-awareness in a style of a song that’s typically shrouded in self-preservation and, to be frank, delusion (“Pretending\To be in love\ With You\ Was a good time \For a long time”). “Don’t Know Why,” a dusty acoustic interlude, slides in next helping to divide the album into two distinct halves, each still tethered by sly and poignant musicianship.


For those who’ve kept their previous three records on repeat over the years or who regularly frequented The Camel during the band’s four-year residency on First Fridays, the second half of the record is where the band’s signature southern-tinged funk sound makes its presence known. “Long Way” is a clever and raucous musical romp while “Brandi Jean” is a dazzling sashay of southern soul. The Belles’ most passionate fans will instantly gravitate to “Silver Screen,” a dynamic jam that slowly builds from an expressive groove to melodic frenzy over five-and-a-half minutes. The guitar solo here by Ciucci is particularly noteworthy, an outlier in extended improvisation that showcases more about the emotional depth of the band’s sound than it does the technical skill. Don’t get me wrong — you’ll be left amazed at the chops Ciucci performs with here, but what will really resonate is the way the solo turns dreamy passion into galvanizing energy, turning a memorable song into an enduring statement.

Framing this record in such a way helps to really see how The Southern Belles have weathered the last six years. While “Silver Screen” could have easily fit onto a bill years ago after an opening set from Super Doppler, it would still stand out in a way, offering just a tad bit of compositional sophistication that only comes to a band with so much experience under their collective belt. Tying together all these different iterations of the band is never easy, but thankfully the band utilized Bryan Walthall as a producer on this record, a role he also served on every preceding record from the band. Knowing the Belles as well as they know themselves, it only helps build a cohesive progression that doesn’t offer any random deviations. The overall musical statement here is as deliberate as any note the skilled band members play across the forty-minute runtime.


And of the band itself, it might be wild to say, but I don’t think they’ve ever sounded better. Drummer Mark Henderson is elastic and dexterous on each song, comfortable in both leading the sudden tempo changes and fading to the background within a thick groove. His punchy approach to the chugging tempo of “The Road” alone stands out as a highlight, showcasing his ability to infuse energy and precision into the band’s rhythmic foundation. Tommy Booker on keys adds such depth and color to the record, from those opening music hall notes on “Change” to the breezy harmony of “Savannah.” The totality of “Brandi Jean” itself hinges on his slick ambiance, illustrating his indispensable role in sculpting the band’s sonic identity. Bassist Zach Hudgins also has plenty to hang his hat on as well, helping to grow the grooves on songs like “Pretending” and “Silver Screen.” Like Henderson, he shines brightest on “The Road” where his nimble dance of notes provides the irreplaceable framework for the melodic journey ahead. Of course, front and center on the record is Ciucci’s vocals and guitarwork, which bare the front of the musical change for the band. His is the trickiest job on the record, reaching towards something new with one arm while using the other to still maintain a grip on the old. It’s a balancing act the band pulls off with impressive finesse, a testament to not only Ciucci’s skill but also his willingness to suppress it in search of something truly soul-stirring.

That search comes to a head on the record’s last song, “Soft And Simple,” a memorable conclusion that serves as a perfect representation of the band’s artistic exploration. Every trick and tool at the band’s disposal is unsheathed here, but in just as meticulous a manner as the rest of the deliberate songs before it. The song builds from a fundamental electric strum and vocal call into a fever pitch of twangy funk wonder with no end in sight, just like the musical well that’s only been thriving under each musician these last six years.

The song and record both end with an impassioned reprise of “The Road,” tying not just the overall sound of the record, but also its profound meaning. This is a true reprise of the Belles: a genuine rebirth. It’s the boisterous and impressive band you know, but more expressive, more cerebral, and more nuanced. Unafraid of change, but also wise enough to not disregard the past. It’s not a return for The Southern Belles – it’s a reemergence that you don’t want to miss out on.

The Southern Belles IV: Reprise is set for initial release on vinyl, available to purchase by anyone who attends their Friday, December 1st show at The Broadberry (click here for ticket information). The vinyl is also available to pre-order now with orders beginning to ship out on Monday, December 4th (click here for ordering information). The album will be released to all streaming platforms on Friday, December 8th.

To keep up to date on The Southern Belles, make sure to follow them on social media.


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