Delta Spirit’s mystique has always been rooted in their contradictions. Their name evokes images of the old, scary South of blues and curses, but the band hails from the ocean-cooled climes of California — far away from deals with the devil and sweaty juke joints. Their music often tends towards the gritty and freewheeling, yet they also have a knack for crafting delicate gems: “Trashcan” features barrelhouse piano and, yes, a percussive trashcan while “Scarecrow” is pastoral pop, replete with rolling folk guitar and chirping birds.
And then there’s lead singer Matt Vasquez, who howls like a man possessed by the blues, but whose wail is tempered by melodies worthy of his pretty-boy face. This dichotomy is also present in Vasquez’s lyrics. How many other lyricists write words as hauntingly poetic as “Maybe God is God / Maybe the devil is me / Well, I’ll just throw my chains on / And tell myself that I’m free” and as starry-eyed romantic as “Because I think of you / In every girl I meet / It’s no relief / Sounds to me just as sweet”? Is he a doomsday prophet, a Romeo, or both?
But trying to reconcile these contradictions is frustrating. Fact is, Delta Spirit seem to know what they’re doing; their first two LPs were a satisfying mix of indie rock and Americana worthy of an edgier, more mysterious Wilco. Those two albums, Ode to Sunshine and History from Below, also showed a band –- like Wilco –- determined to not make the same album twice. While the band’s debut could easily be shoved into the alt-country category, its follow-up displayed more of an indie rock influence, though these various influences show up on both albums to varying degrees.
Those contradictions — and the tensions that arise out of them — are what lend Delta Spirit their unique sound, elbowing one another for room, pushing each other into unforeseen places, complimenting the others in surprising ways. The band is capable of crafting foreboding and theatrical songs in the vein of Tom Waits (“People C’mon”) or pure pop gems that address social issues (“911”). With such wide and impressive sonic abilities, it’s little wonder that Delta Spirit morphs with each album.
And on Delta Spirit — the band’s third, eponymously titled LP –- morph they do. Here, the band tosses in elements of new wave and post-punk, making their music an even more encompassing, dizzying, and gratifying blend of influences. This sonic shift, no doubt, has something to do with personnel changes: since History from Below, guitarist Sean Walker left the ranks of the band, replaced by Will McLaren. While departures can be unsettling events in the life of a band (and downright terrifying for loyal fans) there’s little to worry about here. McLaren, apparently, is something of a guitar wizard of the Johnny Marr variety, skillfully building layers of atmospheric noise on one track, nimbly picking through another.
Lest all these new influences seem jarring, though, Delta Spirit begins with the band’s vintage sound. “Empty House” features Vasquez’s cryptic lyric writing (“How could one little speck / Make a difference to the rest?”), ramshackle vocals, and soothing melodies; as well as Brandon Young’s propulsive, nuanced drumming. What’s immediately noticeable, however, is McLaren’s agile, fluid guitar work, which grounds the song in the band’s signature sound while expanding it. Blending the rustic sensibilities of ’60s folk-rock (think the Band) with the atmospheric flourishes and panoramic scale of ’80s arena rock (think U2), “Empty House” is easily one of Delta Spirit’s best songs.
The next couple of tracks, though, see the band making forays into new sounds. “Tear It Up” is a post-punk blend of worldbeat drumming, minimal lyrics, and angular guitar. Sounding more Talking Heads than Dylan, it’s sure to catch listeners off guard. It’s an interesting track, for sure, though one that doesn’t necessarily get catchier with repeated listens. Vasquez and company clearly wanted to send the message that they weren’t content to retread old ground; mission accomplished.
“California”, on the other hand, becomes more infectious with each listen. While the narrator tenderly, heartbreakingly encourages his love to move to California to find someone better than him, synthesizers quietly pulsate, only to give way to sweeping walls of guitar and “ooooh-ooooh-oooohs”. More moving than the new wave wall of sound, however, are the painfully candid lyrics, written by multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich: “I want you to move to California for yourself / I want you to find whatever your heart needs / I want you to move to California for yourself / But not for me…” It’s not only a gorgeous track, but also one that hints at the future direction of the band.
But just when all the nods to new wave and arena rock and post punk seem slightly unsettling, Delta Spirit pull back into their trademark sound. It’s a wise move, as few bands can do what they do so well. Their calling card has always been creating contemplative folk songs and shambolic rockers, and there’s no shortage of those on Delta Spirit.
Vasquez is known for being obsessed with American history, particularly the work of progressive historian Howard Zinn, and this influence is particularly strong in the album’s slower tracks. In “Time Bomb,” for example, Vasquez views the anxiety of the present through the prism of an idealized past that has permanently slipped away. “Remind me of a memory / Bleed it till it runs dry / But if it feels like this / It’s probably wrong,” Vasquez laments, then adds, “I don’t know what comes now / I can’t hear it but I know the sound.”
“Tellin’ the Mind” and “Money Saves”, conversely, are searing rockers, the former combining primal screaming (rather annoying at first, but give it some time) and McLaren’s frantic fret work. “Money Saves” takes the band’s knack for constructing frayed pop songs and injects it with synthesizers and staccato guitars, once again showing their desire to update their sound.
Vasquez recently told Rolling Stone that Delta Spirit is “the sound that we’ve been looking for, that we’ve been growing into”, before adding, “that’s why it’s a self-titled record, so we could connect our identity with the album.” That the album reflects the identity of Delta Spirit is certain, as it captures a band unafraid to explore new artistic territory.
But whether this is the sound Delta Spirit has been searching for is doubtful. Everything in their history says that with each album they’ll seek out a new sound, add new elements, reshuffle the old ones. Go figure, then, that the moniker Delta Spirit conveys both familiarity and surprise. Really, what else could you expect from them?