The problem with roots revivalism, whatever specific form it takes, is two-fold. On the one hand, you have musicians so indebted to and enamored of their form and its forebears that they succumb to simple imitation. Remember the Stray Cats? Enjoyable stuff, to be sure, but it did nothing to push rockabilly forward. It remained at the end of the day an exceedingly competent simulation. On the other hand, you have artists who, fearful of being mere imitators, produce forced, often gimmicky musical hybrids. Steve Martin’s and Edie Brickell’s recent effort, Love Has Come for You, suffers from the uncomfortable pairing of Martin’s quite traditional musical approach and Brickell’s alt-rock attack. Intellectually speaking, an interesting proposition, but as music it fails.
Bearing these traps in mind, it was with considerable trepidation that I approached Della Mae’s debut LP for Rounder, This World Oft Can Be. The record’s accompanying press release did little to allay my concerns, harping rather anxiously about how this group is “respectful of American musical tradition, but not restricted by it, combining centuries’ worth of musical influences with an emotionally tough, undeniably modern songwriting sensibility”. A tall order, one that even veterans of the form rarely pull off, which is why I’m happy, albeit a bit surprised, to report that This World Oft Can Be lives up to that promise.
The lead track, “Letter from Down the Road”, kicks off with a lovely fiddle line, indicating in no uncertain terms that we’re in the presence of some very fine players. What’s more, as soon as lead vocalist Celia Woodsmith launches in, it’s clear too that we’re in the presence of one hell of a singer. Her approach is relaxed, confident—Woodsmith is content to impress instead of dazzle. Her phrasing is exquisite and she has a keen sense of melody (note the way she makes a hook out of each word of the line, “I swear he’s the prettiest thing that this girl ever did see”).
There are more standouts here than you can shake a stick at. “Hounds” is so successful as straight music (another winning melody, and dig that banjo) that you scarcely notice the way its lyrics engage and confound roots music tradition. The titular hounds are not Robert Johnson’s hellhounds, but rather the “hounds of heaven”, threatening the narrator with a death she’s not ready for (and, by the sound of it, not resigning to without a good fight). “Heaven’s Gate” moves from mourning to obstinance with striking subtlety. And the jaunty, irrepressible “Turtle Dove” is so well played that Woodsmith is able to deliver lines that would sink a lesser singer and writer (case in point, “Why don’t you preen your feathers and fly into the light? / Oh, I would fall like Icarus, despairing of my plight”).
There’s nary a clinker to be found here (though “Pine Tree” is a touch too precious for my tastes), and the whole thing maintains a consistency of quality that would be the envy of many established artists. What’s most impressive, though, is not that Della Mae has succeeded, but that the band has done it and made it seem so easy. There are no signs of the self-consciousness and strain that mar so many roots-based releases. Instead, This World Oft Can Be is the rarest kind of success: the past grounds it, sure, but so too does the present, and the result illuminates both.