[Rating: 3 stars]
Delta Spirit is a band poised for arena rock – a statement, depending on your perspective, that is at once the most thrilling and damning thing that can be said about a band. It has implications denoting a band’s well-deserved success but connotes the possibility and inevitability of a loss of audience intimacy, intimacy that a band like Delta Spirit has been carefully building over the years. Nevertheless Matt Vasquez and company seem, finally, on the verge of something big – on the precipice between relative (but far from complete) popular obscurity and hard-fought (and wide) public acclaim. For long-time and loyal fans of the band, it’s a happy and a sad moment. But this nearly always happens to great bands: They can’t stay obscure forever.
In many ways, this happy/sad paradox is also at the center of the band’s new self-titled record from Rounder Records. On Delta Spirit the record, the band capitalizes on its hard-fought inertia by presenting their cleanest and most sonically homogenous record to date. It is a clear example of artistry within worn and comfortable musical landscapes. But it also represents a slight back-step emotionally – and perhaps not for content’s sake so much as for production’s. This is a difficult argument to map, especially when the first half of the record is so great. For example, the first four songs, including the state-themed pair “California” and “Idaho”, fit nicely alongside classic Delta Spirit songs like “Salt in the Wound” (from 2010’s History from Below) or “Trashcan” (from of their debut 2008 Ode to Sunshine). But something is missing.
That something could be one of two things. Optimistically, perhaps that missing element is just the chance to hear the record vetted in a live space. Once songs like the record’s leadoff “Empty House” have wedged their way into the band’s always-intense live set, this critical hesitation will disintegrate. There is also the possibility, however, that the band also senses that something big is on the horizon and is adjusting accordingly.
For those of us who would have it both ways, the record’s seventh track “Tellin’ the Mind” (an anthem about the Barefoot Bandit, Colton Harris Moore) is the single non-homogeneous stand-out. It departs noticeably from “comfortable” and replaces it with a guttural animal cry which, though jarring, feels more innovative and true-to-intensity Vasquez. This is the same viscera that nearly every song gets imbued with when Delta Spirit is on the stage. With “Tellin’ the Mind”, Delta Spirit seem to promise that success isn’t always the a first perfunctory omen of creative integrity’s slide, but can instead be a harbinger for new and exciting futures.