Music

Delta Rae: After It All

On its second album After It All, the Durham-based sextet successfully raids the storehouse of American musical traditions, incorporating influences ranging from blues to folk, rock to pop, and hip-hop to musical theater.


Delta Rae

After It All

Label: Sire
US Release Date: 2015-04-07
UK Release Date: 2015-04-06
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Popular music has always been somewhat infatuated with youth: with staying forever young, reveling in teenage wastelands, fighting for one’s right to party, etc. But in recession-era America, youth has lost some of its former luster, as open roads and big dreams have given way to anxiety about an uncertain job market, flickering prospects for financial and personal stability, forever wars, threatened civil rights, and other substantial worries.

On its second album After It All, Delta Rae situates itself right smack on the horizon of the once-promising American dream, questioning the legacy that young Americans are inheriting from their forebears yet insisting that there’s still grounds to be hopeful about the future. With After It All, the Durham-based sextet raids the storehouse of American musical traditions, incorporating influences ranging from blues to folk, rock to pop, and hip-hop to—most prominently, to this writer’s ears—musical theater. While these more disparate influences crept quietly into its debut Carry the Fire, Delta Rae cranks up the intensity, earnestness, and stylistic hybridity on After It All, creating a product that could just as easily blast through car windows as—a girl can dream—a Broadway theater.

Like a musical, After It All is all about dynamics: it careens from delicate, introspective solo numbers to full-throttle, all-in anthems that encapsulate the Big Themes and Ideas underpinning the entire production. Like the hit movie-turned-musical Once, After It All opens with a delicate, tentatively enunciated number; its title, “Anthem", is paradoxical given its smallness of scale. Sung, like Once’s “Leave", by a single male voice, “Anthem” opens with the lines, “Am I always on the edge of quitting / Of giving up or just forgetting,” a query that aptly frames the conundrum that Delta Rae tackles throughout the album. “I don’t want to fight their old war / Give me something I can hope for,” the singer implores as strings, drums, and harmonies crest above his voice. This plea for something to believe in, framed here as a desperate imperative, shapes the album’s course and, in a minute and a half, establishes its dominant themes: a fear of stagnation and decay in the face of uncertainty, a search for hope and love amidst obstacles, and the effort it takes to keep dreaming when reality itself can be so goddamn punishing.

Two related narrative strands run through After It All: one centers around a love affair built on passion yet occasionally plagued by doubt, and the other explores the changed prospects offered by America’s frontier mythology in the 21st century. Both stories concern the vacillations between contentment and dismay that define any young adult life, and the latter injects political urgency into a body of songs that would otherwise feel dominantly personal.

The stomping rock song “Bethlehem Steel", for example, explores the desolate landscape of the rust belt in a post-industrial age, mourning the receding prospects for success in this sector of the country. It opens like a cyclone, with Brittany Hölljes’s vocal rocketing above pummeling percussion, and goes on to vamp around the idea of a frustrated immaculate conception: “A child was born in Bethlehem / The son of a steelworker, a union man / He grew up tall and he grew up strong / And when he came of age all the steel was gone.” What have we inherited, the song asks, and how do we overcome limitations imposed on us before we were even born? Furiously paced keys and robust backing vocals keep the song charging forward, accentuating the refrain, “He wants gold,” which affirms—as most Delta Rae songs do—that there’s room for optimism in even the most unpromising of situations.

The album loses steam on love ballads like “You’re the One for Me” and “The Meaning of It All", whose hackneyed titles portend a strain of sappy devotionalism and bland philosophizing that the songs unfortunately bear out. A string section, it turns out, can be used for good, as on the ebulliently up-tempo “Run,” or for ill, as when the epitome of a sad violin slides in to accompany the line “cause I’m breaking down and I can tell it’s deep” on “The Meaning of It All". These missteps, however, seem less like outright failures than like the byproduct of the album’s thematic and musical ambition, and its few low points are vastly outweighed by triumphantly original and hope-inducing numbers like “Chasing Twisters” and “Outlaws", not to mention Delta Rae’s signature style of southern-gothic blues, exemplified here on “I Will Never Die".

Like musical theater, After It All might not be for everyone, for it demands that the listener get on board with the grandiosity of its themes and the almost campy excess of its instrumentation. Yet the album carries a message that we all need to hear, delivered by immensely talented young people chasing their artistic dream across the globe and sending back candid dispatches from that frontier. The sum of its parts is both personal and political, confessional and theatrical, and if someone ever makes the genius decision to adapt Delta Rae’s music for the stage, we could all do worse than to buy a ticket.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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