[14 July 2009]
Just as the Shins are destined to be intertwined with Natalie Portman and Garden State for all eternity, Rocco DeLuca should understand by now that he will perpetually be mentioned in the same breath as Kiefer Sutherland. Not that DeLuca probably minds. Sutherland lent a considerable amount of spotlight to DeLuca’s career, first by signing him to the Ironworks label (co-owned by Sutherland, also home to Lifehouse and honeyhoney) and promoting his music enthusiastically on TV shows and in the documentary I Trust You To Kill Me.
Now that the requisite Sutherland reference has been made, let’s move on to Mercy. The music on DeLuca’s second album with his band the Burden is so good it doesn’t need to be rescued by Jack Bauer. This is a first-rate soul record which charms the listener more and more with each successive spin. At turns it is sensual, spiritual, and cinematic, and, in its best moments, all three.
With skillful production by the great Daniel Lanois, Mercy has a wonderful, slow-burning feel. The album is visceral and provocative, but usually in a quieter, subtler fashion than most artists have the restraint to embrace. When Lanois and DeLuca cut loose and allow DeLuca’s voice to soar (as it does on the aggressive, bluesy joint “Save Yourself”), the pinpoint focus and range of emotion which he displays on many of the album’s softer songs becomes all the more intriguing.
Mercy‘s best cuts are indeed ballads (though in the least melodramatic sense of the word) on which Lanois and the many talented instrumentalists featured create an ethereal backdrop against which DeLuca’s vocals add strokes of color. The album’s first track, its title cut, is a gorgeous example. Backed by mega-stars Keane, the song is immediately disarming and surprising. The vocals are ethereal yet pleading, and by the time “Mercy” settles into a soft, easygoing groove, the refrain becomes less a surprise and more a soulful connection with the audience. DeLuca and Keane singer Tom Chaplin prove suitable vocal counterparts, complementing each other and working well in concert.
Other highlights include the darker, bluesier “I Trust You to Kill Me”, the smoldering “The Painting”, and “Any Man” with its muddy bass, Delta dobro riffs, and sweet groove. Also fascinating is “Junky Valentine”, a seedier cousin of the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine”.
DeLuca does apply a bit of rock and roll sandpaper here, scuffing the smoother edges of the soul music he’s created, giving the album the grit and grunge needed to facilitate authenticity and form attachment with the listener. He and Lanois lay bare every imperfection, every worldly quality to his voice, and allow the songs to develop on their accord rather than stay boxed into some safe pop-rock radio format. The out-and-out rock tracks on the record (“Save Yourself”, for example) work very well but the great mix of bluesy urgency and softer soul that Lanois, DeLuca, and company craft is what really makes the record sing.
There are a few minor missteps here. The spoken word section on “Open Pages” is ill-advised and drags an otherwise solid song down, for example. Overall, Mercy is solid from start to finish and reflects a vision shared and well-executed by DeLuca, his bandmates and Lanois.