[1 May 2013]
Nashville-based southern-rock outfit the Delta Saints mix Lynyrd Skynyrd swagger with Kings of Leon angst and a touch of that old-time gospel to create a heady, intoxicating mix. The quintet’s debut full-length, Death-Letter Jubilee (following 2010’s self-titled EP and 2011’s EP A Bird Called Angola), offers a baker’s dozen tracks that mix affecting vocals with tight, guitar-based rock for an album that should win wide acclaim outside its regional fan base. In fact, it’s not too much to suggest that this album just might spark a southern-rock renaissance. It’s that good.
The album hits the ground running with the jaunty rhythms and snaky guitar of “Liar”, all underpinning the sly vocals of Ben Ringel. Unlike, say, R.E.M., Delta Saints are a Southern band with a capital S, one that does not shy away from their drawling accents and country-tinged musical tropes, all served up with enough energy and verve to avoid staleness. Skronking harmonica trades licks with slide guitar while multifaceted percussion and thrumming pace keeps things rolling nicely. In brief, “Liar” is a perfect lead track.
Happily, the energy rarely flags afterward. “Chicago” trades the quick tempos for a deliberate, almost dirge-like blues shuffle, but the raunchy guitars and howling harp serve to keep things lively. “From the Dirt” offers up a moody bass rumble to anchor the whirlwind, while the aptly-named “Boogie” pretty much delivers what you expect—an uptempo slide-guitar rave-up. “Old Man” moves from weary to bellowing in under four minutes, and is a thrilling ride every step of the way.
Most of the tunes here are heavily electrified, but acoustic guitar dominates a couple of slower numbers, especially the reflective strummer “Out to Sea” and the incendiery “Jezebel”. One of several songs incorporating Biblical imagery, “Jezebel” shifts the tempo to a markedly lower gear, and brings new shading to the band’s sonic palette. Other spiritually influenced tunes include “River” with its gospel-choir backing vocals, the frenetic “The Devil’s Creek” and album closer “Jericho”. With its breathless vocals, chugging rhythms and twanging guitar, “Jericho” is one of the strongest songs on an already-strong record.
Searching for weak links in this album feels like an exercise in nitpicking. Ringel’s voice won’t be to everyone’s taste, and his warbling on mellow tunes like “Out to Sea” might strike some as po-faced or affected. “Drink It Slow” tries to channel some kind of southern-fried soul in its verses and fails, but is saved by the snappy vocals of the chorus. The Delta Saints don’t come across as a band particularly interested in rewriting the rock and roll rule book, but rather as a bunch of guys with massive record collections who enjoy playing their instruments skillfully enough to shake some butts. If that sounds problematic, then perhaps you should move along to, I don’t know, Sonic Youth or Animal Collective.
For the rest of us, the Delta Saints are a terrific band to settle into for a while. Combining solid musicianship, strong songwriting chops and the vocals to back them up, Death Letter Jubilee is simply one of the most satisfying rock albums I’ve heard in a long time.