Friday, March 9th 2012
Reviews: Delta Spirit
Six songs into Delta Spirit’s upcoming self-titled release (their third proper album), I was ready to peg it as one of my favorite albums so far in 2012. Buoyed by album opener Empty House and first single California, the first half of Delta Spirit is a perfect road trip soundtrack, exuding a sense of hope and openness through both Matt Vasquez’ voice (which adroitly moves back and forth between softer tones and his distinctive growl) and the experiment of infusing the band’s dirty alt-country sound with cooler, more electronic tones brought to the table by producer Chris Coady.
But then Delta Spirit takes a perplexing turn, with the band making an already scorn-worthy Arcade Fire imitation worse by adding tribal-sounding vocals reminiscent of Rhythm of the Saints-era Paul Simon, and then inexplicably diving into an indie synth wormhole.
Despite Delta Spirit’s at-times brutal Side B, Side A is chock full o’ solid country-influenced rock played against a fresh sonic palette provided by Coady, who previously worked with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, !!!, and Massive Attack, among others. It’s clear the band has been absorbing the influences of their generation-mates, which bassist Jon Jameson admitted to when he recently told Beats Per Minute that, although part of Delta Spirit’s sound is rooted in music of the past, the band “is also intertwined with the sound and culture of today.” On the album’s first side, these influences (and Cody’s influence) appear to remain relatively muted, only creeping up at interesting moments, filling space previously left vacant by Delta Spirit’s sound or augmenting an already powerful track.
Opening song Empty House is pure Delta Spirit—driving, country-influenced guitars and Vasquez’ remarkable voice, eventually giving way to fuzzed-out rock ‘n’ roll riffs. The song has an expansive feel, one that speaks of new beginnings and infinite possibilities, while recognizing the limitations of one man’s power.
Following is Tear It Up, which melds easily with the surrounding tracks, but gives the first indication that Delta Spirit will be no rerun of the band’s first two albums Ode To Sunshine and History From Below. In place of what used to be unconventional instrumentation (maybe a trashcan lid or empty bottle) reside a drum machine and synthesizer, providing an incessant and catchy beat, but lacking the rawness of the band’s traditional sound. Fortunately, these shiny new elements are joined by Vasquez’s growl and more guitar fuzz, saving it from jumping off The Killers’ cliff of synthesizer glam.
The album’s first single California continues Delta Spirit’s trek alongside its newfound indie influences, but similarly maintains the band’s Americana rock identity. Ethereal yet pulsing with energy, California (listen here) mimics Empty House’s open feeling with Vasquez singing of setting free someone he loves, despite knowing what pain it will cause him: “And though my heart will fight until its dying breath / You’re not for me.”
Vasquez’ misfit poet persona comes through strong on Idaho (“Thunderclouds have been making faces / My friends are on the front porch gettin’ wasted”), and the song follows its predecessors in terms of tempo and sound. The band’s frontman continues to flex his lyrical prowess on Home, the album’s first slower turn and a prayer-like meditation on keeping the faith through difficult times with only vocals and the gentle strumming of guitars.
Otherside keeps the indie country rock show going with what Jameson described in the BPM interview as thunderous “caveman beats”, as well as seamlessly intertwining guitars and keys, and lyrics that foreshadow Delta Spirit’s second half: “I can’t be honest with myself / I wouldn’t believe a word I said.” Those words could not be more poignant considering how dishonest the remainder of the album feels.
What follows is indescribable, really. After Otherside, the album veers entirely off course, only briefly recovering for one more dirty, guitar-driven rock song (Money Saves), before again delving to unforeseen depths.
Tellin’ the Mind sounds like it was leaked from Arcade Fire’s next album, and the band succeeds at making things worse by dropping in an out-of-place vocal track that calls to mind Native American or M?ori rituals. Imagine a Paul Simon-Arcade Fire mash-up—an image and sound which are unfortunate because, on its own (meaning, without the incessant chirping of the vocal track), it wouldn’t be a bad Arcade Fire tune.
But wait, it gets worse.
Time Bomb and album closer Yamaha are all-out attacks on Delta Spirit’s previous sonic identity, synthesizer hand grenades thrown into the middle of an album that was previously an easy ride. Whether they’re just bad attempts at mimicking the sound of Grammy-winner Bon Iver, or plain bad Alphaville covers, I don’t know. One way or the other, they feel entirely out-of-place on a Delta Spirit album (even one with a healthy dose of synthesizers).
The only other song on Delta Spirit is Into the Darkness, an unremarkable, dreamlike song that is neither completely enjoyable nor completely objectionable. It’s just kind of there, occasionally sporting a groove that unfortunately never quite reaches its potential power.
That’s how Delta Spirit ends—with one solid jam, one fine Arcade Fire cover interrupted by a pow-wow, two poorly executed Bon Iver covers, and one, well, blah. A bipolar album for sure – it’s unfortunate, because the band was onto something during the first half of the record, crafting a landscape of sounds built for the open road. But somewhere along the line (well, on the first note of Tellin’ the Mind, to be honest), Delta Spirit lost their way, caught in an identity crisis between their old selves and their contemporary influences.
Fortunately, the band’s energetic live shows should prove fertile ground for them to develop the depth and warmth of Side A of Delta Spirit (and hopefully they’ll keep the rest of the record tucked away in their catalog). I’ll be covering their May 10th show at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium for Antiquiet. See you there.