I met the great rock entrepreneur Seymour Stein about ten years ago at the Fader Fort during South by Southwest. This was before the fest became so big and one could actually sit in a chair during a Fader Fort party. Stein saw my Iowa credentials and immediately starting grilling me about the state’s politicians. The Brooklyn native knew more about Iowa’s Senators and Representatives than most Hawkeyes. I was impressed by his depth and breadth of knowledge. We also talked about music. He asked me what Iowa band was going to be the next Slipknot in terms of popularity. I took his email address and sent him a few links to good local bands, but he never signed any—which was probably a smart idea financially.
Still, Stein came across as a sharp guy in many ways. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for launching the careers of such notables as Madonna, the Ramones, the Pretenders, Talking Heads, and many others. So when I heard the 70-year-old had signed Delta Rae, his first signing in many years, I was excited to hear the North Carolina band. Stein had called them the American equivalent to Mumford & Sons. There are superficial resembles between the two bands, but Stein must be losing his ears. Delta Rae’s new record is not that good.
The six-piece act consists of siblings Brittany, Ian, and Eric Hölljes with Elizabeth Hopkins, Mike McKee, and Grant Emerson. These folks have big voices and repeatedly use them to build to climaxes of sound. The strong singing evokes American gospel, especially on tunes such as “Bottom of the River”. However, too often the voices overwhelm the material, including on the aforementioned song where “the long way down” may be Hell, but it seems more like a rhetorical contrivance for hamming sincerity.
Consequently, some of the best songs are the quietest. The mellow vibe of “Forgive the Children We Once Were” does a good job of looking backwards at our personal faults for about the first two minutes, before going LOUD quiet LOUD quiet in a mawkish manner. The same is true for “Unlike Any Other” and “Country House” which are more sparsely produced so that when the volume and intensity does change this seems less artificial because the differences in volume are not as great.
However, the raging storm of singing that begins “Is There Anyone Out There” and “Morning Comes” signals Glee-style harmonies are about to begin. Belt the lyrics. Clap hands. Dance. Repeat. Ho-hum. All that energy and no where to go. This is more “fun” the group than “FUN” as in excitement. Now I admit, I have witnessed audiences having fun to watching the band fun, but I don’t get it. But if you like that act, you may like Delta Rae.
So Stein may be right about Delta Rae. I bow in deference to his smarts and track record. But it won’t be because of this record. Delta Rae needs better material to show off what makes them special and distinctive. One can hear flashes of what this might be on “If I Loved You” with its soulful horns and spiteful yet endearing lyrics sung through a clenched throat. In the meantime, don’t expect Delta Rae to be mentioned in the same breath as Madonna, the Ramones, and other Stein signings anytime soon.
// Notes from the Road
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