Sometime in 2020, singer Natalie Ribbons and multi-instrumentalist Jason Chronis grew tired of that hellish year, packed up a guitar and an 8-track cassette recorder, and hopped into a time machine. Finding themselves sometime in Renaissance Europe, they began writing and recording catchy narratives about crystal witches, magical shrines, and paper crowns. Jumping back in their time machine, the duo traveled to 1950s midwestern America to complete their album. What emerged from their time in a mysterious, bygone–possibly alternate–reality is their 2021 sophomore effort under the name Tele Novella: Merlynn Belle. Combining the haunting vocal aesthetics of Angel Olson, the songwriting energy of Willie Nelson, and an odd sense of harmony, Tele Novella deliver a 32-minute escape that reminds one of both a Shakespeare festival and a 50s diner.
Forming in 2014 after the breakup of Ribbons’s former band, Agent Ribbons, Tele Novella released their debut EP Cosmic Dial Tone that same year. It established the group’s signature whimsical indie-rock sound, and Ribbon’s quirky and fantastical lyricism. The group refined their production on their 2016 full length debut, House of Souls. The record exhibits a desert indie-rock sound, often accompanying odd chord progressions and interesting harmonies. Tracks like “Victorian Terrarium” hint at things to come on the groups sophomore effort and first release on the Kill Rock Stars label: Merlynn Belle.
Reduced to a duo on Merlynn Belle, Ribbons and Chronis have refined their sound into something with more diverse instrumentation and an overall atmosphere that takes the listener on a strange trip through a history that may or may not have existed. What seem like disparate styles are tied together by Ribbon’s haunting melodies, subtle drum machines and zany percussion. Opening track “Words that Stay” kicks off the album with janky percussion and Ribbon’s showing off her haunting voice as she transitions from her lower register into falsetto in a way that almost sounds like a yodel. Lyrics like “A secret door is sure to open / to accept your offering” and “you’ll only dance if it’s to gunshots” set a mysterious tone for the album. The following track “It Won’t Be Long” sounds like it’s from a deserted circus in 1950. “Wishing Shrine” opens with whistling reminiscent of a Marty Robbins song before telling a charming tale of childhood friends reconnecting and reminiscing. “One Little Pearl” can only be described as something you might hear at your local Renaissance festival, while delivering potent lines such as “something in the weight of our things will not let us go.” Standout single “Paper Crown” has one of the strongest melodies on the entire project, accompanying beautiful lyrics about finding new love. “Crystal Witch” again reminds one of a demented fairy tale world. Closing track “Technicolor Town,” another standout, sounds as though it is being broadcasted on an old radio, a sonic window into the dreamlike place to which the speaker escapes. A sultry drum machine, subtle guitar and synthesizers, the signature quirky percussion, and Ribbons melancholic howls wrap up the album perfectly.
Escape is the best word to describe what this album provides. Exhibiting the same energy as those fantasy books you used to read at night under your sheets with a flashlight while it rains softly outside your window, Tele Novella have crafted a beautiful album that rewards repeated listens. A promising sophomore effort that may make your aching heart howl, we can only fantasize about the strange universes Tele Novella will explore next. Recommended If You Like: Angel Olson, Sun June, The Decemberists Recommended Tracks: Words That Stay, Never, Paper Crown, Technicolor Town Do Not Play: None Written by Josh Rubino on 03/13/2021