According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids, whether it’s intentional or not. This number has grown alarmingly quickly over the last decade, with awareness of opioidal deaths only gaining real traction in the last 5 years or so. It’s a devastating epidemic, and one that reaches into all social and class systems. For Athens, GA resident and musician Ritchie Williams, the severity and personal nature of this ongoing tragedy was brought far too close when his brother Dave had an opiate-related overdose which nearly killed him and left him with permanent neurological damage. In the aftermath of Dave’s overdose, Ritchie knew that he could not be another silent witness and decided to form Nocturnal Blonde with the intent of using the band as vehicle to bring awareness to the ever-growing opioid crisis.
Prior to this familial shock, Ritchie had the pleasure to work with fellow Athenian Michael Stipe (iconic front man of R.E.M.) on a previous release with a local band in which he sang, played guitar and wrote. Deeply effected by the natural and simplistic way Stipe handled his worm as producer, Ritchie was inspired to alter his own perception of music arrangement and composition. Shortly after his brother’s overdose, he decided to put this studio experience to proper work in a bid to shed light on this terrible scourge. The band shared their debut EP, “Smart Heart,” in 2018 and are gearing up to self-release their first full-length, “Still Gushing,” on August 23.
Consisting of Ritchie (who sings, writes and plays various instruments), singer Rachel Adams, who was a co-worker of Williams and was discovered as she harmonized to songs on the radio at Ritchie’s day job, bassist Kevin Sims and drummer James Owen, they create and offer a mixture of modernist Americana rhythms and alt-rock volatility. And though they do not play live — the band is strictly a studio creation — there is nothing confining about their music, nothing that hints at any lack of live energy pulsing through these particular sounds.
Much of “Still Gushing” was written by Ritchie and Dan prior to Dan’s overdose and while he was in the throes of that terrible addiction. When Dan was no longer able to finish the record due to the subsequent neurological injury, he completed the songs, even as it lead to his own emotional breakdown. There’s an underlying current of despair and anger and ache in the bones of their new record, but the band doesn’t wallow in this darkness; instead, they opt to expose the insidiousness of addiction and the social circumstances which foster opioid expansion.
In advance of the album’s release, they’ve shared its title track, a bit of acoustic introspection that finds Rachel and Ritchie balancing harmonies and lyrical insight. There’s a simplicity here, a bare-bones rhythmic exploration of pain and regret that easily finds its way into your heart. The music doesn’t need to rely on unnecessary additions but works a kind of melodic magic that allows it to subvert your expectations as it settles into the recesses of your subconscious. Nothing is wasted, and nothing else is needed. “Still Gushing” is a bruising account of the ache that occurs in the wake of a splintered relationship — one that ends not with screams and anger but with emotional resignation and mutual, though not painless, understanding.