[18 August 2014]
Making an album is no easy task, especially when it’s your debut full-length and expectations are high, to put it mildly. But taking that pressure to craft a separate world entirely is remarkable, and that is precisely what takes shape in Secret Evil. Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas’ first LP is a fully-realized realm, a dimension glimpsed in the group’s series of preceding EPs. Queasy carnival music, hoodoo blues stomps, country waltz ballads, primitive rock and jazzy inflections coalesce and flow around the anchor of Hernandez’s rich voice, a contralto rife with character and heartrending soul. The amalgam of styles in this alternate history is esoteric enough to be fresh and enticing to a music snob, but contains enough pop sensibilities to lure in, and open more doors for, the casual listener.
As the eye of the hurricane, Hernandez’s vocals get the lion’s share of focus. Sultry and refreshingly confident, her voice is also supple and the singer has an admirable mastery over her instrument. Rather than belting out every note as might be the temptation, the Detroit songstress is most remarkable when she exercises restraint as the softer numbers demand. Threatening in “No Place Left to Hide” and with a fuck-off defiance in “Caught Up”, she displays a wounded sensitivity in cuts like the sprawling “Neck Tattoo” and austere closer “Lovers First”.
Unlike many bands who glean their leader’s name for their collective moniker, the Deltas are not incidental backing. As evidenced by prior EPs Weird Looking Women in Too Many Clothes and, most recently, Demons, the group’s sound is difficult to pin down. Permeated with a smoky, western gothic vibe and cabaret textures, the riotous percussion and evocative trombone are central to the band’s distinctive aesthetic. There is a dose of camp as well, but just enough to keep things from getting too serious, and thus does not render the overall work campy. Likewise, the group has a level of theatricality that doesn’t come at the expense of their authenticity. Sure, Hernandez’s voice is the star, but the Deltas provide the idiosyncratic night sky for her to shine on.
Despite the wildly varying genres the Deltas draw from, there is a consistent pulse running throughout. It starts in the first notes of opener “No Place Left to Hide”, a throbbing bassline and maraca rattle setting the scene before the music galvanizes into the feel of a predatory strut. “Hunt you down / Going nowhere / No place left to hide,’ Hernandez lowly intones in the first moments, abruptly shifting to a sonorous declaration in the up-tempo verses. The bridge builds intensity until dropping out with just the singer’s voice and sparse percussion before ratcheting up again. It contrasts well with successor “Sorry I Stole Your Man”, which gives a different shade of the seductive panache. A choir of dusky cooing establishes some unease, added to by the shuffling drums, minor piano chords and slinky organ. It imparts a feeling of place, specifically, that of the devil’s personal burlesque show, Hernandez dealing vindictiveness via a facetious apology. Capping off this introductory trilogy is the album’s first ballad, “Cry Cry Cry”, which offers something of a feminine perspective on the spiteful Johnny Cash song which name it shares. Empathic to the person she’s singing to, ethereal keys and brushed drums supporting her, Hernandez’s vocals curl like exhaled smoke in evoking the proper amount of pathos.
On this staid number’s heels is the album’s poppiest number, “Dead Brains”, defined by swirling guitar and jaunty, handclap percussion on the refrain. Despite the charnel imagery and gloomy content of the lyrics, the tune is among the most up-tempo of the batch and arguably the catchiest. The group then wears their blues influence (by way of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) proudly on “Tired Oak”, the record’s cinematic centerpiece. With what sounds like some eerie theremin warble in the background and a breakdown of mad cackling and military march drumming, it builds with a crescendo in which Hernandez declares, “I would only try to fight for something / I would only try to fight again” before it all fades away with the static of an radio tuning out.
Placed side by side, “Over” and “Caught Up” have the hardest rock edge, the former with an ominous, fuzzy synth part slithering around and the latter’s saxophone blaring with an incendiary fervor. Lyrically, they’re similar in that they exorcise a razed relationship and assert the narrators’ own strengths in their aftermath. The slow-building balladry of “Neck Tattoo” has more a sentiment of solidarity in the face of dire circumstances and is a close second to “Tired Oak” for the titleholder of Secret Evil‘s most darkly opulent cut.
Quirkiest here is “Run Run Run”, dominated by a deranged carnival accordion that creates the sense of being chased down a deserted midway by a psychopath. “In the dark of the night / There’s cold-hearted man / Lock the door to the room / Save the ones that you can,” Hernandez sings with a fatalism that such precautions are too little, too late. That noir sensation continues with “Downtown Man”, descending horns and swampy guitar creating the mood of a Jim Thompson pulp novel while Hernandez’s lyrics sketch a nefarious figure that could be an accomplice of the god/man/ghost/guru in Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”. It all ends on a somber note, “Lovers Note” focusing on Hernandez’s aching vocals and a mournful arpeggio with all of the pomp stripped away, giving it the ambience of an early Tom Waits ballad. For arguably the first time here, she shows a wounded side in asking a former paramour to take her back; that it’s saved for the last song heightens its immediacy. By the final moments, though, the fragility has morphed into the familiar strength, the singer now the resolute one that the former connection is not to be reestablished.
When the album wraps, it leaves a large shadow behind. That weird melancholia you get after returning from a vacation is conjured, the desire to instantly return to that intoxicating locale. Thankfully, this destination is a play button away. Push it, and you’re not only back in one of 2014’s most deftly sequenced, produced, written and performed albums, but you’re in the midst of an enthralling netherworld you will feel more hesitant to leave with each visit.