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Grey DeLisle: Iron Flowers

Jason MacNeil

Critics will alter their year-end lists, thanks to this stellar album to which descriptions like 'Americana' or 'traditional' do not begin to do justice.

Grey Delisle

Iron Flowers

Label: Sugar Hill
US Release Date: 2005-06-14
UK Release Date: 2005-07-11
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Grey DeLisle's 2004 album, The Graceful Ghost, basically summed it up pretty well -- DeLisle had a haunting, sweet, rich and almost childlike innocence in her voice that brought life into each track. It seemed as if she had been weaned on the likes of Emmylou Harris in order to raise the bar for her alt.country/roots/traditional Americana contemporaries. What she would do for a return was anybody's guess, but a good guess was that it would be as strong as -- if not outdo -- the last record. And boy, she has really outdone herself here. "I never want to make the same record twice," she says. Fortunately, she didn't leave her pipes on the cutting room floor.

And what a way to kick off an album! Not relying on a simple, formulaic roots-cum-dirge ditty that showcases her assets. Oh no, ma'am. You get a heap of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", minus the images of Freddie Mercury and Brian May's thunderous guitar. Many would think she walked the plank with the cover, but she strips it down to something basically unrecognizable. The drummer opens the song before DeLisle takes it down a Cowboy Junkies route that brings with it her lovely lullaby timbre as the pedal steel weaves in and out. This is nothing but a great rendition that could also fall alongside PJ Harvey's Dance Hall at Louse Point album with John Parish. She wisely omits the theatrical middle portion, keeping it very tight and very stellar. The last two words themselves are worth their weight in gold, sure to send chills down some spines as she holds the note for quite a while. "Joanna" is not that much of a stretch for her as the singer sounds a bit like an early Rosanne Cash or southern Natalie Merchant, crafting the arrangement to let the music and her voice soar in all the right places. The song brings to mind the Mavericks if they were covering a Ronettes ditty (back when Phil Spector's hair was only 47 inches wide on either side!)

She rarely ventures into a pop or rock motif, but the gorgeous slow-building, deliberate, and groove-saturated "Right Now" is one of those pop songs that probably won't make radio but should. A track that isn't the centerpiece or highlight of the album but is just too often taken for granted these days. The guitars are rock-oriented but constantly brim under the surface. Just when it seems to be fading out DeLisle throws a straight sonic change-up by letting Marvin Etzioni break loose on the guitar. Another great nugget is the creepy, crawling Dylan-esque penned, Lanois-ish produced "Who Made You King", a track the gets under your skin and whose bass line perfectly complements DeLisle's vocal prowess, often downplaying the lyrics to a surprisingly greater effect a la senor Springsteen. At times whispery but so sultry that they will indeed "make you wanna cry like a saxophone". It's a testament to the fact that a live take, and often the first take, is the best take you'll get, capturing that precious magic and getting it onto tape. And it exits through the back door as effortlessly as it let itself in.

Perhaps the oddest -- but one of the finest -- tracks is the jerky motion of "God's Got It", which sounds like a mountain music combo vying for the slot of a house band at an Austin blues club. Chugging along at a decent, toe-tapping pace, DeLisle guides the song along before it takes off on its own on the second verse. Meanwhile, the only time she resorts to the whispery, country-meets-dirge tone, found often on her previous album, is during "Bloody Bucket", which is easily a close cousin to early Dolly Parton circa "Jolene" or "Coat of Many Colors". She revs up the song with a barn-burning, Celtic-tinted conclusion that is a welcome surprise. The lone track which sounds like it could be considered filler or run-of-the-mill is her '60s-styled blues rock tune, "Blueheart", which features teenage support from the Amazements.

The 10 tracks conclude with a one-two punch of a barren acoustic song about a bird, "Sweet Little Bluebird", that is pure manna from heaven. And the last, not the least, but the longest tune, is the closing, windswept, waltz-like "Inside Texas", which could be the perfect complement to "Waltz Across Texas Tonight". I thought she couldn't outdo herself after the last album. I was wrong. My bad.


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