Blag Dahlia - Introducing Ralph Champagne (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Blag Dahlia

Introducing Ralph Champagne (2022)


Despite all the blood, despite all the guts, despite all the imagery which, still today, many people still consider shocking despite the fact that it was established some thirty-plus years ago, what has always remained hidden under the patina of the Dwarves is artesian songwriting. “Drug Store” might be about getting pills in a back alley, but the song itself is built around a blues chassis that creates sonic interest through repetition and slight deviation from that cycle. “Everybody’s Girl” might be a pop-punk charger, but the “punk” part is almost irrelevant because it’s really a tune fashioned in the mold of the early ‘60s bobbysoxers ala Freddy Cannon or del Shannon. Perhaps for the first time ever, on his first true “solo” album Introducing Ralph Champagne, Dwarves frontman Blag Dahlia has mostly stripped back explosions and flashes and cheesecake imagery and set his songwriting in the forefront. Maybe the following is surprising if you don’t really know the Dwarves but if you do it probably isn’t- Blag is a songwriter on the class of any heralded bard you can name. I’m not joking when I say he should be in both the songwriter hall of fame and the rock hall.

Ralph Champagne finds Blag picking and choosing various country genres which allow him to exhibit his skill. One of my personal favorites is “Contraband,” which sits somewhere between ‘70s Waylon Jennings outlaw country and ‘80s pop-country. Much in the country style, the track is a “story” song, which details a down and out trucker who finally makes some bread by humping drugs for Mexican cartels. The track is classic in that it’s built off a timeless rhythm twang fetched from the hillbilly hills somewhere. But, it’s subversive in that it treats a drug smuggler as hero- Johnny Cash and even Waylon would sometime tell tunes about bad guys who get their due or have bad fates, but here, Blag’s character smuggles drugs, shoots and cops, and has a grand ‘ol time. The surprisingly little moralization here. It’s also interesting that in a time where Country has become bizarrely pro-establishment, Blag throws his lot in with the Narcocorrido types, who, of course, are not the type of guys that Big and Rich appear to like.

Yet, not everything is twisted. “Summer Rain” is simply incredible. It’s a gentle, earnest song about heartbreak. There’s, little, if any, subversion or irony. Rather, in the style of Burt Bacharach or Patsy Cline, Blag details honest emotion while whistling and snapping his fingers. The power is in the perfect simplicity which creates the question- how was a song this simple a perfect not written 60 years ago But it wasn’t and here it is now. If Fred Astaire sang this in “Singin the in Rain,” it would be your grandma’s favorite track ever.

Much like the approach of Mick Jagger on “Girl with Far Away Eyers” or “Dead Flowers,” Blag salutes country and folk as much as skewers it. But, even in pointing out the genres’ eccentricities, he has a sort of appreciation. “It’s over,” the album opener, kicks off with a killer twang-riff straight out of the Randy Travis handbook. At once it’s an opening declaration of intent as well as a license to have some fun. Going back to Mick, the Rolling Stone has often mentioned that one of the reasons he likes country so much is that it’s self-aware but genuine. Throughout this album, such as honky-tonk, steel guitar laded “nothing to Say,” Blag nails this perfectly while exhibiting just how good he is at songcraft. Also, his voice is pretty much the same as it has always been, but here, his voice which pinches between baritone and yee-haw squeak really sounds fantastic and ties everything together.

Throughout Dwarves records, when the band is doing lines of fistfighting or chasing after girls or going to jail to smashing people through glass windows or being stung out, you have to ask, “is this real or is this the band reveling in a mythos?” It’s usally somewhere in the middle. It says something that on a record where Blag (a stage name to begin with) adopts a Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego, we appear to get the real person. This record is a masterpiece and is one of Blag’s best ever works.