Travel, cute boys, and money are just a few of the subjects Those Darlins address on their second full-length, Screws Get Loose, but sometimes it sounds as if these all-over-the-place girls just want to go fishing with, well, a cute boy with cash. Screws Get Loose is a rock ‘n’ roll playpen as envisioned from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Those Darlins’ home and a semi-boho college town south of Nashville. So “Be Your Bro” really is about how Jessi Darlin—the group’s main songwriter and, from the evidence of Screws, its conceptualist—gets impatient with her boyfriend, who “just wants to stick it in.” As she sings, “I just wanna swim and play in the creek/Catchin’ crawdads until the sun goes down,” it does sound like fun.
Crawdads aside, Screws doesn’t have anything to do with country music, revivalism, or Americana. The Darlins’ 2009 self-titled debut was a collection of material they’d been doing around Nashville for a few years, and Jessi, Kelley, and Nikki Darlin were perceived back then as an alt-rock version of the Peasall Sisters with some unusual Ramones fixations. It was inaccurate on just about every level: I spent time with the Darlins in the summer of 2008, and it was clear these were pure pop adepts who loved Nick Lowe and ’60s Rolling Stones albums. Screws displays Jessi’s ear for the uncanny chord change and telling phrase, while Jeff Curtin’s production masses many guitars in various guises behind echoed vocals that go from solo to unison in unpredictable fashion.
That’s to say Screws aspires to the high-end pop of Lowe’s Pure Pop for Now People or the Flamin Groovies’ mid-’70s work, and gets there more often than not. The production is strange in one aspect: The Darlins’ voices (and that of drummer Linwood Regensburg, who contributes a few songs to the record) sound so faded back and swathed in echo that you begin to wonder if there isn’t some radical self-effacement buried in their version of pop. Not that the title track isn’t about autonomy—Jessi gets on a plane, just as the Stones did in their 1966 “Flight 505,” because she’s going insane. No one will listen to her problems, so she explains, “Can’t change me after all the abuse/Oooh, screws get loose.” From the warning-bell guitar lick that begins the song to chord changes that evoke ’60s girl groups—and a screwy recurring guitar solo that drives me nuts every time I hear it—it’s a great track.
The aforementioned “Be Your Bro” updates the Darlins’ indie-white-trash image to the present, when they’re so successful that an afternoon out in the country is a luxury. With its snide summer-camp melody and clanging guitars, it shows Jessi’s flair for goosing pop form with unexpected bridges and dissonant passages. Screws is full of such oddities: The introduction to “Tina Said” features an overdriven, Wurlitzer electric piano battling overtones with a guitar, while “$” falls together with feedback and a mutated rockabilly beat. Those Darlins are formalists still working out the kinks, but on the evidence of “Tina Said,” Jessi has internalized pop form and has something to say about unglamorous situations. “They slapped him in the face with a court subpoena/Only solid shelter they ever had,” she sings, referring to the song’s hapless, homeless subjects. It’s a good-humored, addictive song—glammy power pop delivered with perfect calm by various Darlin combinations. “Tina Said” sounds like they have aspirations to prevent screws getting loose and the kind of trouble such malfunctions can portend.