Delta Spirit’s name alone conjures up ideas of a very bluesy, “Down South” sound: the evocative kind that fills the air like a dense fog and gently settles over a crowd glowing under a thin veil of sweat, gently pulsing with life underneath the low-lit lights of an unpretentious bar somewhere deep in New Orleans.
But just like “The Big Easy”, this band possesses far more charm, mystery, and depth than can be summed up in one over-wrought sentence. First of all: this is a rock and roll band. Fans of the group know that, yes, their sound is deeply steeped in Americana, but there is a certain freewheeling…well, spirit, that keeps the indie-folk leanings of the songs interesting. It is the dichotomy of these two strong musical influences – northern soul and pure rock – that makes Delta Spirit’s music both compelling and a bit of an enigma. The latter because you never quite know how those influences will be reconciled into one piece of music, or which one will win out over the other from song to song (or album to album).
On Delta Spirit, the eponymously named third album from the group, the rock has most definitely been brought to the forefront. And in doing so, it seems the band has made a definitive choice to reach out to a wider audience. “A wider audience?!”. I can hear the collective moans of disappointment echoing across the Internet right now. But before everyone loses their minds and subsequently sets off to find a new favorite lesser-known indie band, remember: when a band makes such a choice to expand their fan base, evaluations about the subsequent artistic product should – and must – be made on a case-by-case basis. Not all bands who become better known suck (case in point: Arcade Fire continues to impress a wider scope of people, while still making good music and maintaining their street cred). Happily, in this case, Delta Spirit’s decision to evolve their sound and entice those not as inclined towards folksy-rock, isn’t a bad thing.
Sure, they have toned down the Americana on this album, but that is not to say that this no longer sounds like the band many of us have come to know and love since its formation in 2005. The voice is still distinctly Delta Spirit and frontman Matt Vasquez’s voice is still as dynamic and soulful as ever. But this is the music of a band in the middle of a growth spurt. It’s a self-imposed one, of course, but in no way does it feel like tantrum. It has always been apparent from Delta Spirit’s albums and especially their live shows, that this is a group of very talented musicians with amazing musical chops that simply love music. Therefore, this change in direction doesn’t feel like a big f*ck you to the original sound – and fans – that built their base in the first place. Rather, it is an effort to move toward a sound that the band feels is more authentic to them.
The album opens with the earnest and lush melodic number, “Empty House”. The gentle crescendo lead-in of the song and the steady build gives the impression of a curtain being slowly peeled back to reveal this new sound. Lead singer Matt Vasquez – his voice full of gusto, as always – is perfectly suited to the number as he welcomes us in with the poetic intimacy of the song’s first few lines:
Glinting gems in the concrete I paved
One every couple of feet
They got mixed up in the lyme and the sand
Nobody noticed but me
To those not acquainted with the band, “Empty House” is a solid and beautiful song. And to those who are already fans, it feels like a subtle invitation to give this musical transition a chance. And for that reason alone, this song is a smart opener.
Last October, I did a “Spotlight” piece on the band where I said: “To call Delta Spirit’s music folksy would sell the band short. To call it alt-country or simply “indie rock” – a phrase usually used when people are too lazy to come up with something better – would do the same. Just as their name implies, the band’s soulful rock music is heavily colored with blues and country influences (particularly in “People Turn Around” and “Devil Knows You’re Dead”).”
I stand by that assessment, with one small amendment: while an undercurrent of Americana still runs through their music, this is a band not content to be defined strictly as such. And with Delta Spirit, it’s clear that the group has worked to cultivate a more mature and finely honed sound that doesn’t feel contrived. It may not be as effervescent as what we have heard on their first two albums, but it is an authentic step forward that will certainly open the door for greater possibilities and appreciation. This is never more clear as it is on “California”. It is the album’s first single and it is a gem. Here, the band has exchanged much of it’s “Trashcan” era boisterousness for sonic refinement. Vasquez reigns in his vocals here as he expresses the desires of the narrator, saying:
I want you to move to California for yourself,
I want you to find whatever your heart needs,
I want you to move to California for yourself, but not for me.
It’s a tender number with an incredibly rich instrumentation that packs a bit of a punch: while the lyrics are touching, they do not shy away from bluntness; it’s rather refreshing.
Of course, the album is not the picture of perfection. There are some misses on the album, including the bloodless “Tear it Up” and the glaring “Tellin’ the Mind“. The latter stands out as a misguided blemish of a song without a real place on an album that is otherwise quite cohesive. Vasquez’s wailing vocals are impressive and the instrumental execution is solid (as usual), but the song feelings like it is trying too hard to shake off any notion one may have about the band being influenced by folk music. As a result, it lacks any depth or emotional core. It even reminds me a bit of Muse, but not in a good way. Fortunately for the listener, “Tellin’ the Mind” is immediately followed by the gorgeous and swelling ballad, “Time Bomb“. Like “Salt in the Wound“, “Time Bomb”‘s strength lies in its simplicity. The words are the stuff of poetry; moving but not suffocated by pretension or lyrical rambling:
Frightened like an orphan
Bitter like an old man
Taken from your family
But know I don’t deserve this
But who am I to judge
Happiness it comes at the strangest time
The song is a haunting confession, but a deliberate one made out of choice rather than guilt or necessity; not a single note is false. From a purely orchestral point of view, the opening is reminiscent of This Will Destroy You‘s “The Mighty Rio Grande” (you might remember the later from it’s use as a central part of the score to the 2011 film, Moneyball).
The songs on Delta Spirit generally lack the kind of storytelling that had been present in past numbers from the group (as in “Ballad of Vitaly”). Instead of lending voice to a cast of characters, the songs take on a more confessional tone and become almost existential in nature. We saw this earlier in “Salt in the Wound” and “Devil Knows You’re Dead” (both off of the band’s last album History From Below) so it’s an organic evolution in the band’s lyrical content and not something completely out of left field.
This is why Delta Spirit has proven to be an earnest effort to grow the group’s sound, but not and the sacrifice of artistic integrity. This marks a step in the direction of gaining a wider audience appeal, and there are many-a-loyal Delta Spirit fans that may find this album disappointing as a result. But when it comes to any band worth listening to, the band should continue to grow and evolve over time. And sometimes conceding that fact means the sound of a band may be taken in a different direction from where it started. It’s a respectable move for a musician(s) of any stripe, so long as the motivation for that change is not money and comes from an artistically honest place, while expressing a specific point of view.
Delta Spirit does just that and is poised for greater recognition. After all, when it comes to great but little-known indie bands, the reality often is that if they really do have the musical chops, they won’t remain little-known for long.