Jessi Darlin is glad rock 'n' roll can still shock people.
Nearly every review of her band Those Darlins' new album, Screws Get Loose, zeroes in on a line from "Be Your Bro," a song about the trouble girls face while trying to just be one of the guys. "I just wanna be your brother, you just wanna be my boyfriend / I just wanna run and play in the dirt with you / you just wanna stick it in," Jessi sings.
It's a bouncy, playful song, showing all the competitive mischievousness of a tomboy who, as Jessi sings, has girlie parts but a boy's heart.
"I knew when I played it for our band that they were gonna laugh," Jessi says. "I'm not too surprised that everyone has mentioned it. It's just funny that, for some reason, it really does shock people.
"I got the idea from some tours that we've done with some people who were married, or whatever, (that they were) afraid to talk to us. It's a lot of different situations mixed into one."
Those Darlins—Jessi, Kelley and Nikki, who all sing and trade off between guitar and bass and use Darlin as their last name, along with Linwood Regensburg on drums—toured steadily for two years after the release of the band's 2009 self-titled debut album, a mix of country and punk straight from their Murfreesboro, Tenn., roots.
While both albums lyrically have a strong sense of, "This is who I am; take it or leave it," Screws Get Loose leaves behind most of the band's country sound in favor of a garage-rock edge, with elements of surf guitar, 1960s girl groups and vocals that drop most of the twang in favor of attitude. Jessi can snarl through the lyrics, turn them into a bratty shout or melt into girl-group harmonies with the other Darlins.
Screws is clearly a more mature record, which isn't to say Those Darlins don't sound just as wild and tough as they did before; instead, they're flush with new experiences from two years on the road and reaching out with greater artistic ambitions. And still full of rowdy fun and pure pop instincts.
"Once you accomplish one thing, a new challenge arises," Jessi says. "It's an ongoing process, learning to work with each other. You're always progressing; you're always getting better and learning new things. ... We come back from a month, and people say, 'Wow, you guys are tighter than I saw you last month.'"
Lately, Those Darlins have played with the Old 97's, and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, and in the past have performed with the Black Lips and Dan Auerbach, a diverse group that Jessi says is united by energetic performances that Those Darlins have learned from and sought to match.
"In terms of those bands, they're fun and energetic, and so that kind of branches over into what we do. It's the same kind of feel. It's not about genres or what you play stylistically," Jessi says. "The crowds are really cool and seem to cross over pretty well. That's pretty much all you need."
Those Darlins got together in 2007, playing music just to entertain each other and to have something to do while hanging out.
"We didn't really know each other that well before we started playing together. We used music as an excuse to hang out, and that's how we got to know each other," Jessi says.
When it came time to choose a name, it was already there.
"It's just a Southern thing. We all just called each other 'darlin' anyway. It's like a gang, being recognized together," Jessi says. "In Murfreesboro or even Nashville, it's real common if you're in a band that whatever the band name is becomes your last name, anyway. People would call me Jessi Darlin, no matter what."
The writing for Screws Get Loose began during tours in support of the debut record, and Jessi says that as the songs began to take shape, it was natural that they took on a different feeling than the band's earlier songs.
"Most songs I write are about more than one person or more than one thing at a time, so I was really proud when I wrote 'Tina Said.' I did it in a way that I didn't really expect," Jessi says. "It was about a personal family issue. I couldn't deal with it in any other way other than to write a song. I felt pretty awesome when I wrote the lyrics, because I felt like I had summed it up in four verses."
Those Darlins recorded in Atlanta with producer Jeff Curtin (Small Black) and engineer Ed Rawls (Black Lips), and released the album on the band's own Oh Wow Dang label.
"Screws Get Loose" opens the album with a fistful of attitude: "Can't blame me for what I do / Oooh, screws get loose / Can't change me after all these years / Oooh, screws get loose."
After "Be Your Bro" is "Let U Down," with lead vocals from drummer Regensburg. The aforementioned "Tina Said" is a response to the self-destructive obstinate nature of a family member. "Boy" is a travelin' song about love(s) on the road, with a chorus that runs "hold me now" right into "I'll see you around." The acoustic-driven "Waste Away" glimpses one potential end of the wild life: "I don't want to watch you waste away / You don't want to watch me do the same." Taken together, it's a lot more than tales of running wild.
"I just feel like I have more of a handle now," Jessi says. "When I went to write a song, it was more controlled. From start to finish, I knew what I wanted, and I got the actual product I was shooting for. It felt a lot easier, felt like second nature to write the songs."